Medical Cannabis Growers Fear Public Disclosure

Medical marijuana producers say their lives will be at risk if a confidentiality provision that has shielded their names and grow facility locations from the public for the past five years is dropped.

On Wednesday, during a public hearing on the issue inside the Harold Runnels Auditorium in Santa Fe, Willie Ford and Erik Briones, who manage several of the state’s largest dispensaries, asked an independent hearing examiner to reject an amendment to the program rules ordered by Gov. Susana Martinez in July after the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government and this reporter sued the New Mexico Health Department for violating the state open records laws.

Brionnes told Hearing Officer Craig T Erickson, an attorney at Sheehan and Sheehan, that removing the privacy shield would be “very dangerous,” since some producers don’t have access to banks and carry a lot of cash. Brionnes also expressed concerns that he and his employees would be targeted by illegal drug traffickers if their names and addresses are ultimately disclosed to the public.

Jason Marks, who represents a majority of the producers via a trade group called Cannabis Producers of New Mexico, told the examiner his group doesn’t oppose most of the confidentiality rule changes but urged Erickson to continue to block the locations of licensed producers' grow facilities as a “matter of public safety.”

“Because cannabis is still listed as a Schedule 1 drug by the Drug Enforcement Agency, we can’t have any guns onsite to protect ourselves,” says Vivian Moore, who worries her location along the US border could make her an easy target of drug cartels operating in Mexico.

State Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, citing federal laws, says he's concerned about eliminating the producers’ confidentiality clause because federal law enforcement officers could use the information to raid state growers, despite memos from the Department of Justice that assure industry operators they won’t be targeted as long as they comply with state program rules.

The arguments to keep the industry shrouded in secrecy didn’t sit well with everyone. Kip Purcell, the attorney who filed the lawsuit for NMFOG and this reporter, told Erickson the department has been given a lot of discretion in formulating cannabis program rules, but “deciding what is public and what is not is not one of those areas.”

Susan Boe, the executive director at NMFOG, reminded the 100 people who attended the hearing that all public programs are subject to the state’s open records laws. “These changes are long overdue,” Boe said.

After reporting stories on the cannabis program since it's inception in 2007, this reporter has pushed for more transparency in the program, including disclosure of producer information held by health regulators.

The fact that publicly awarded licenses cannot be sold, exchanged, bartered or traded and revert back to the Health Department are a clear signal that they are subject to the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.

Normally reporters do not offer comments during public hearings, but after receiving so many redacted documents, including site inspection sheets, I suggested Erickson recall Martinez’ recent comments to 911 dispatchers: "They are public record. Give it to me."

Attorney General Hector Balderas

the department a letter, urging a rule change to bring it into compliance with the state Inspection of Public Records Act. 

Erickson, who will also consider rule changes on pesticide labeling requirements, patient registration changes and a proposal to eliminate heavy metal tests, along with new rules for couriers, will accept written comments for 10 days. While there is no deadline, he says he hopes to issue his nonbinding findings by early February.

Health Department Secretary Retta Ward has the authority to make the final decision before imposing new rules.

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