The state shouldn't be able to keep secrets about who's been awarded licenses from the state to grow and sell cannabis, argues a lawsuit filed this week in district court.

Independent journalist Peter St. Cyr and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government say the New Mexico Department of Health has violated the state Inspection of Public Records Act by repeatedly refusing to identify license holders or applicants for the licenses.

"Plaintiffs believe that secreting the identities of medical-marijuana producers distorts the market for the medicine, deprives New Mexicans of important information about their neighborhoods, and has the potential to promote cronyism and corruption in the awarding of valuable state licenses," reads a complaint filed by attorney Kip Purcell in Second Judicial District Court in Albuquerque on Thursday.

The Department of Health adopted an administrative rule keeping information about producers confidential, but Purcell argues that's not permissible under state law.

"Carving out exceptions to the public's right to know is a job for the Legislature," he tells SFR. "An executive department can't exempt its own records from IPRA unless the text or the spirit of the governing statute demands that result.  In our view, DOH's determination to shield the identities of medical marijuana producers has no such statutory basis."

The open government nonprofit has been trying to coax the records out the health department's Medical Cannabis Program since 2009, the year the licenses were first issued after a 2007 law went on the books to allow patients with certain conditions to buy the plant from state-authorized growers.

"Obviously our arguments did not persuade DOH  to change its position so our only alternative was to file this lawsuit," says Susan Boe, the foundation's executive director.

St. Cyr, who has reported regularly on the medical cannabis program for SFR, says his interest in the documents is about protecting the public.

"There is no reason for health regulators to shield the names of medical cannabis growers and sellers," St. Cyr says. "The fact that these licenses can't be sold, exchanged, bartered or transferred to other growers and revert back to the Department of Health is clear proof that they are public licenses."

Further, he says, patients in the program "want to know if the folks who want to make a living selling pot actually have horticultural experience or if they're just out to make money," he says.

Plus, journalists want access to the information to evaluate the fairness of the application and selection process for growers.

"We want to see if the licenses are being awarded to political donors or cronies or to well-qualified growers," he says. "We're also interested in seeing if the licenses are distributed in a diverse manner. For decades, we've been locking up African Americans for selling cannabis, but now that we've made it legal for medicinal purposes, we want to see if all the licenses were awarded to white men."

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