Sworn to Secrecy

Want to know who's applying to be a cannabis grower? Officials won't tell

They may be used to shuffling reams of patient paperwork, but it’s likely nothing has prepared New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program managers for the scores of new producer license applications that are due to hit their desks this week.

In March, after deciding to triple the number of plants that current producers are allowed to grow, New Mexico Department of Health Secretary Retta Ward also reopened, for the first time in five years, the license application process for up to a dozen new licensed growers to help meet the needs of more than 13,500 patients.

As applicants rush to put the final touches on their detailed proposals and scramble to secure the $10,000 application fee before the May 1 deadline, just how the state will decide who gets a license to sell medical marijuana remains a mystery. Even the names of the producer applicants are being withheld from the public for now. Yet transparency advocates say that shouldn't be the last word.

"The names of producer applicants and existing licensees are public records and cannot be kept secret because of a department regulation or rule," says Susan Boe, the executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.

Only patients who have applied for or received a registration identification card are ensured privacy by law, says Boe.

"That mandate does not apply to the names and addresses of licensed pharmacies or health providers, nor should it apply to producers of medical marijuana. Transparency is a key component of rigorous and effective regulation," she adds.

Secrecy in the pot program also leaves some patients feeling frustrated.

CannaGramma blogger Sarah Dolk, a registered patient herself, writes about the state's 8-year-old program online. Last week, she was elected to the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients Alliance board. Dolk tells SFR she believes that applicants' names and backgrounds should be subject to public disclosure so that patients can judge what expertise they have growing, testing and providing medical marijuana, "because it is our medicine."

"I want to be sure that these people have patients in mind and aren't just positioning themselves to take advantage of the big rush when recreational marijuana is inevitably legalized in New Mexico," says Dolk.

The department has kept a lock on producer and producer applicant names since lawmakers authorized it to establish administrative rules.

At the time, legislators and others worried that federal agents, armed with a list of names and addresses, could decide to raid greenhouses and dispensaries. Worse, they worried that prosecutors would file criminal charges against the growers and state employees involved in the program.

By June 2009, just one producer had been awarded a license, Santa Fe Institute of Natural Medicine, and when SFR published the name, the nonprofit's attorney said she feared that the disclosure would lead to problems.

A year later, the department decided to expand the number of growers, and regulators again shielded the names of another 102 applicants. Since then, most of the current producers have self-published websites and regularly place ads in local newspapers, promoting their products and listing their street addresses.

"While some LNPPs have made their contact information public, they have not made their production locations public, again due to security reasons," says Kenny Vigil, a health department spokesman.

Greenhouse locations and business proprietary information isn't important to most patients. Medical Marijuana Radio show host Larry Love says he just wants to know who is financially backing the nonprofits and who is serving on their boards. He wonders if cronyism will play a role in the selection process and shudders when he hears rumors that big pharmaceutical companies could enter New Mexico and send profits back out of the state.

"New Mexico residents and investors have been waiting for an opportunity to apply for over 5 years," says Love. "I hope that the DOH will be very careful who they license this time around."

Other states have made their medical marijuana licensing process more transparent. Massachusetts, for instance, requires its producers to agree to be publicly disclosed.

For now, Love is focused on figuring out how Ward and her team will grade the new producer applications and why current producers, like other nonprofits, don't release their annual financial information.

"How much are these people paying themselves?" asks Love. "There should be reasonable salaries, but if they're truly operating as nonprofits, then prices should be around $8 a gram, not $12 or $13 a gram."

SFR plans to submit a request for a complete list of applicant names after the deadline.

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