Chronic shortages of medical cannabis in New Mexico could be a thing of the past.
State health regulators have approved proposals from 10 of the state's biggest marijuana growers, who will triple the number of plants they're allowed to cultivate—increasing from 150 to 450 plants after they pay a prorated $90,000 annual fee.
Not everyone lined up to grow the new maximum number of plants. Seven of the 23 license holders decided to stay at 150 plants, while six others opted to grow between 200 and 400 plants.
In Santa Fe, Fruit of the Earth Organics co-founder Lyra Barron says she and her son, Juam Barron, are expanding production by 50 plants. They're now licensed to grow 200 plants at a time at their family-owned outdoor farm.
At the same time that growers are waiting for their renewal fee checks to clear the bank, the New Mexico Department of Health continues to shield information from nearly 16,000 patients and the public who want to know about the nonprofit organizations and third-party cannabis manufacturers.
Despite promises from Gov. Susana Martinez in July that the program would become more transparent, renewal application packages requested by SFR under the state's open records law and made available on Aug. 25 were heavily redacted.
The hidden records make it virtually impossible to see exactly who is growing and selling legal cannabis in New Mexico and difficult to determine who is financially backing the organizations.
The void leaves some patients frustrated. New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patient Alliance President Nicole Morales contends her members have a right to know more about the people involved in growing their medication.
"Everybody is asking about the grower's testing policies," Morales says, adding she still doesn't know when the health department will start enforcing testing rules adopted in February.
Morales isn't the only one pushing for accountability and transparency at the Medical Cannabis Program.
Greg Williams, the president of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, which jointly filed an open records violations lawsuit with this reporter against the health department in July, says, "The governor has already directed the department to change the rule. We believe the rule that the department created for itself was never valid, and the department should immediately release unredacted copies of these applications."
Still, SFR was able to ascertain some information between the blacked-out spaces.
At Fruit of the Earth Organics, Barron assured regulators her employees are only using biologically safe remedies to control potential insect infestations on their biannual harvests. Documents show the grower relies on herbal remediation and praying mantises.
Producers also submitted details on safety protocols, including prohibition of firearms and the consumption of any cannabis products inside their dispensary by patients and employees.
At least one producer attested to the fact that they have had no run-ins with law enforcement agencies in the past 12 months. Another producer included a letter from the Eddy County Sheriff's Department, notifying law enforcement about their application to expand their rural facility.
Regulators also require producers to explain any connections they have with for-profit management companies, which often lease buildings and land to the nonprofit organizations.
Not every licensed producer is worried about having their name published. For years, several producers have gone on the record with SFR, including Sacred Gardens' Zeke Shortes.
After finding a bigger facility for his Santa Fe operation, Shortes tells SFR he decided to pay the steeper renewal fee this year, because it will provide a higher annual yield and eventually allow him to reduce patient prices by about 8 percent.
"The higher the plant count, the more efficient the producer can run. That will, we hope, lower the per-gram cost from $13 to $12 a gram," he says.
Still, Shortes says limiting the plant count in New Mexico is an outdated model. As the number of patients registered in the program increases, he says he'd like to see the regulators allow them to grow even more plants.
"That should end the shortage once and for all," says Shortes.
We're putting all the redacted documents we received from the health department below, including the ones that were provided after being scanned upside.