Lessons from Legalization

As New Mexico closes in on transition to legal cannabis, patient experiences in other states offer guidance

Before recreational cannabis launched in the Pacific Northwest, Katie Hansen, a medical marijuana patient with multiple complex issues, had a deep network of growers and providers that could get her exactly the medications she needed.

In the wake of the growing recreational industries in Washington and Oregon, however, the task of getting her meds has become much more difficult. And that’s a warning she and other medical marijuana patients and advocates in legal recreational states would like to pass on to New Mexico as it continues to consider launching recreational cannabis through legislative action.

“My single biggest comment about Oregon is the state systematically left us out and have continued to reduce our program to the point that having a medical card means almost nothing anymore,” Hansen tells SFR. “The profit is in the THC and quantity. Our strains have been diluted, we still don’t have a law regarding chemicals used in grows, and growers are walking away from medical because it costs too much to make it worth it.”

In Washington state, where Hansen was also a patient before she moved to Oregon, the medical system was rolled into the recreational system a few years after stores opened in 2014. As a result, testing requirements for medical products in the market are more strict, which has caused patient price increases and made growers less eager to produce medical-grade products like suppositories or patches. With the recreational market, it’s much more profitable for them to produce high-THC items like flower and vapes, but that’s left medical patients with much fewer medications to choose from.

“Finding meds that don’t make me sick has been difficult,” Hansen says. “Shops in Washington are required to disclose the pesticides they use, at least, but Oregon does not. … Often times I go without or end up wasting money on something that makes me sick.”

New Mexico state Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, who spearheaded HB 356, the Cannabis Regulation Act, in the last legislative session, says patients are foremost on the minds of lawmakers who continue to evaluate a recreational cannabis launch. Martinez is also part of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Working Group on Cannabis Legalization, which is tasked with protecting medical marijuana as it works out a structure for recreational cannabis.

“We’re really focused on three things to protect patients,” Martinez says. “One is to require that licensees hold about a third of their inventory for medical patients. Two is that medical products should be exempt from taxes. And three is that we are creating a subsidy for low-income cannabis patients to afford their medicine.”

Lorna Gayle, a patient activist and cannabis producer in Oregon, says she thinks the New Mexico idea of using some of the taxes to help pay for medicine for patients is a good idea, and one she hasn’t seen elsewhere.

“Additionally, perhaps, they’d consider discounted card fees for low income patients or veterans,” Gayle says. “When Oregon went recreational, patients lost out as the medical program was modified. Registered medical growers became discouraged as the rules changed, fees increased and growers were no longer able to recover the associated costs. This resulted in decreased growers, and therefore a reduction in the number of patients being helped.”

The price spikes in Oregon have come down a bit in recent months due to a vast oversupply of cannabis in the state. But the quality of that cannabis remains an issue for patients because most of that cannabis is not medical grade. Edible pricing in the recreational market is also an issue for patients. Washington, Oregon and Colorado all have 10 milligram dose limits on recreational cannabis products, and when medical patients have to buy medications like that, they often need 100 or even 1,000 milligram doses. Purchasing doses of that size from the recreational market is prohibitively expensive, she said.

“For example a gram of FECO/RSO (a concentrated product that many patients use) is still $25 to $40 on the market,” Gayle tells SFR. “That’s a large expense for someone who needs to consume a gram or more a day.”

The problems for medical cannabis patients have also occurred in neighboring Colorado, which also began recreational cannabis in 2014. Bridget Dandaraw-Seritt, co-founder and CEO of the Cannabis Patient Rights Coalition of Colorado, says the focus on recreational cannabis and associated profits has also deeply damaged the medical system in her state.

“It’s a disaster,” Dandaraw-Seritt says. “Not in the sense that adult use has legalized, but the medical system has been gutted, and I think that’s by design.”

After recreational legalization, state governments have often tried to push medical cannabis into recreational systems because it means there’s less bureaucracy to manage. And the tax revenues from recreational quickly become a focus for cash-strapped municipalities

But patients get lost in that shuffle. Often they need very specific strains of cannabis that are not high in THC, but in other cannabinoids, including CBD, CBG and other varieties. One way for them to continue to get the meds they need is to allow them to grow their own medication. But in Colorado, the state reduced the amount of plants that patients can grow from an unlimited amount to a total of 12, and that’s actually caused some deaths, Dandaraw-Seritt said.

“We’re seeing a lot of patients actually not surviving because of these reduced cultivation laws,” she said. “In the past few years I know of about 60 people in my area of Colorado Springs down to Pueblo who didn’t make it because they couldn’t get enough medicine.”

Personally, as she also suffers from a complex set of diseases including autoimmune deficiency and Lupus, she needs to have about 60 plants in rotation to get everything she needs, Dandaraw-Seritt said.

“My diseases are also active again,” she said.  “Without that access, I’m not doing well. I’ve had some bone damage. And I can’t get my meds unless I break the law and have a criminal violation.”

New Mexico Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, who also worked on the legalization bill, said he thinks requiring recreational growers to dedicate a portion of their grows for medical could be a solution to some of the potential supply issues.

“We did have a provision in the original bill that required any current medical cannabis producer to maintain 40 percent of production in medical,” Ortiz y Pino tells SFR. “We need to have enough product going into medical to make sure people can get what they need.”

Another provision in that bill would have dedicated about 2 percent of the proceeds from recreational cannabis taxes to subsidize medical costs for patients.

Both provisions could go into a new bill, but the details are under debate in the Governor’s Working Group, he says.

Marissa Novel, a spokeswoman for Ultra Health, New Mexico’s biggest medical cannabis provider, says her company is dedicated to continuing to provide quality medical products to the market, but it also plans on moving into the recreational market when and if it’s legalized.

“A big issue with protecting the medical program will be to make sure the medical program has enough product,” Novel says. “Right now, already, about a quarter of the people in our state can’t get the product they need. There’s just not enough supply to meet the demand.”

She argues that increased canopy caps would help growers make sure there’s enough product for both patients and recreational users once the market launches.

“The demand estimates for adult use indicate we’ll need about 104,000 pounds in the first year to supply recreational needs,” Novel says. “In comparison, last year the medical program sold 16,000 pounds.”

It’s difficult to predict whether a recreational cannabis bill will make it through the Legislature in the upcoming short session. Gov. Lujan Grisham has indicated she wants to make it a priority in the session, but because of the time limits, it will still be a difficult task, according to Ortiz y Pino.

“It’s going to be difficult time wise to get it through,” he says. “I’d give it a 50-50 chance in 2020, but I think by 2021, with the longer session, it will have a 75 percent or even 80 percent chance of passing.”

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