Hating It

Public comments on proposed medical cannabis program changes flood Department of Health

Hundreds of New Mexico medical marijuana patients, producers and program advocates continue to voice dissent to what could be the state's most sweeping rule changes since 2010.

In June, they flooded the email boxes of Secretary of Health Retta Ward and program managers with petitions and written comments expressing their opposition to patient grown plant caps, increased fees and other proposed regulations.

Last week, the New Mexico Department of Health, which held a public hearing on proposal rule changes in Santa Fe on June 16, provided SFR with nearly 500 of the 900 written responses received as of July 1. The documents included a petition signed by close to 1,300 people from around the state, New York, Florida, Oregon and as far away as Germany.

The comments included a passionate plea from a 14-year-old girl who took time from her summer break to urge regulators to reconsider the rules. Grieving the death of her father, who died from a prescription pill overdose, she insists cannabis “helps people live better lives.”

 “I know if my father knew of the medical cannabis program he would still have been alive," she writes.

While Ward did not attend the public meeting, behind the scenes she forwarded the emails she received directly to program administrators. Others bypassed the Department of Health altogether and sent their concerns directly to Gov. Susana Martinez.

Some recommended Martinez set up a task force to review the program and ensure regulators operate “in accordance” with the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act.

During the public comment period, at least one producer offered patients a free gram of marijuana to sign a form letter.

Even national advocates monitoring the situation in New Mexico submitted letters in opposition to some of the proposed regulations.

Americans for Safe Access, which is based in Oakland, California, suggested the organization supports independent lab testing, improved product labeling requirements, and more training for non-profit providers, but wrote that  some of the proposals would “adversely affect New Mexico’s patient population and financially vulnerable." Costs, they claim, would increase and “patients would have a difficult time maintaining a 90-day supply of medication.”

The Drug Police Alliance stated it believes the new regulations would illegally place “new and crush burdens on poor families."

 “As a result of these restrictions, New Mexican families with a sick or dying child who cannot afford to purchase medical cannabis from a licensed producer, who do not have adequate or consistent access to a licensed producer because of where they live, or who rely on a particular strain of medical cannabis not offered by a nearby producer, would be legally prevented from cultivating cannabis for their child,” wrote Drug Policy Alliance Legal Affairs Director Daniel Abrahamson.

Frustrated patients say they were left out of the planning process. SouthEast New Mexico Medical Cannabis Alliance founder Robert Pack told Ward her claims that patient advocacy groups were contacted ahead of compiling the new rules “is questionable at best and a lie at the worst.” He says the department blatantly disregarded patient groups.

“It calls into question the integrity of the proposed rule changes and the manner by which they have been assembled and presented,” Pack wrote.

SFR could not find any comments in support of the complete package of rules in the documents that were provided, but at least one patient appeared to support producer fees increases. At least one said the proposed rules regarding security at grow facilities doesn’t go far enough. He suggested the NMDOH allow growers’ security agents be allowed to carry firearms because the industry is a prime target for criminals.

A public defender balked at lowering the number of plants patients can legally grow and wrote about that clogging the courts up with more “frivolous” criminal cases.

Current Medical Advisory Board member Dr. Laura Brown sent a note adding to comments she made at the public hearing. Brown believes the changes are political and infringe on patients’ rights.  Still, she said she would support rule changes that are based on evidence.

“It appears to me that the politics of this program are trumping effective public health and medicine,” she wrote.  

Others say they want the health department to focus on the New Mexico’s opiate drug overdose and alcohol-related death epidemic, adding they want the pot program left alone.

Jason Marks, an Albuquerque attorney and former Public Regulation Commissioner who represents 16 of the 23 nonprofit producers, submitted a detailed 40-page letter and exhibits.

Even a retired law enforcement officer on a fixed income complained about the impact the changes would have on the cost of his medication.

Natural Rx dispensary owner Trevor Reed told the health department he surveyed his former patients ahead of the June hearing to learn why so many had quit the program and learned that many say the program has too many barriers.

At least one of his patients said a doctor had opted not to help with the license renewal process, citing the program had become “too complicated” and “too cumbersome.”

A lab scientist who is preparing standards for heavy metal testing says the new rules omit important considerations. She’d like those to be similar to ones used in Canada where heavy metal standards are based on daily ingestion limits.

New MexiCann Natural Medicine founder Len Goodman, who operates Santa Fe’s largest dispensary, opposes the proposed plant restrictions. He claims harvests should be a function of the market.

“The proposed regulations must be withdrawn from consideration and input must be obtained from all stake holders [sic] before crafting new proposed regulations that will improve the NM MCP rather than harming it,” Goodman wrote in his 14-page letter. “With sufficient plant count and sufficient yield to meet patient needs, a legitimate market can function that will lead a cooperative competition resulting in lower prices for patients.”

Goodman plans to continue arguing his case in Taos on July 17, when Legislative Health and Human Services Committee has added discussion on the proposed changes to its interim meeting agenda.

Independent Hearing Officer Susan Hapka has said she’ll read all the comments submitted in writing before issuing her own opinion on the rules later this summer.

Santa Fe Reporter

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