A familiar face has returned to co-direct the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program.
Dominick Zurlo, who managed the program from 2008 to 2011, rejoined the MCP as co-director with Kenny Vigil in August, bringing the Medical Cannabis Program staff to a full 29.
Zurlo had stepped away from the Department of Health in 2011 to work on his doctorate at the University of New Mexico in educational psychology.
In 2014 he returned to the department to manage the Hepatitis and Harm Reduction Program, but he was recently asked to return to the MCP.
SFR chatted up Zurlo recently to talk about his motivation for returning and his goals for the program.
SFR: What are your goals for the program?
Dominic Zurlo: Foremost is ensuring that patients have safe medications, but hand in hand with that is that patients have access to those medications. For medical cannabis, we want to make it as simple and easy as possible for people who have these conditions to enroll in the program and have access.
How is the state keeping up with supply and demand?
The program annually is looking at how much supply there is with the needs of the patients —and to ensure that there is enough for all of them. We have a 1,750 plant limit for growers, not including seedlings, and several producers aren't at that plant limit yet. That means there's still plenty of room to expand and to grow.
Why did you rejoin the MCP?
As the program continues to expand, we need to expand our staffing. That's something I'll be looking at. Medical cannabis is a program I have loved, and it's certain to grow.
[He noted that the MCP currently has 77,000 patients, with 98 dispensaries, 34 producers and two labs, and those numbers are likely to increase.]
Do you or have you ever used cannabis?
"I've not ever knowingly consumed it. I don't have a need for it for myself, but if I had a medical issue, I certainly would use it and I have no issues with that."
What's new with the vape ban?
The Department of Health has issued a warning with regard to vaping. We suggest other methods in the meantime: Edibles, ointments, solids (cannabis flower). We want to get more information about what's happening. If it ends up being a black market issue only, that's something we'll consider at that time. Nationally, we want to work with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) so we get a full picture of what's happening.
[As of early October, the New Mexico Department of Health has received information from 13 combined probably and actual cases in the state, which he notes is "very small amount in comparison to the population of the program."]
How important is proper product testing and patient safety to the MCP?
Making sure we have medications that are as safe as possible is our main concern. As testing technology keeps improving, we plan to increase the testing we do to continue to make sure those meds are safe. Right now we're working on rules that will provide safer testing, but they won't be finalized until March.
[He noted that SB406 the "Medical Marijuana Changes" bill filed in the 2019 session, has been chaptered, but will likely return in 2020 or 2021.]
Are you looking at lessons from other states as both the MCP continues to grow and recreational legalization comes closer to passing in the Legislature?
It's always good to look at what other people have done—and to look at what problems they may have had to avoid pitfalls. We want to ensure that we do this in New Mexico the best way possible. We're looking at any other state doing this, including recreational states like Colorado, Oregon and Washington.
What's the latest on out of state residents getting cards in the MCP?
Well, in the last court session the judge said we have to issue out of state cards, and we started doing that and have started issuing cards. We've had no logistical problems so far. We will continue to issue those cards, but the department is also appealing the ruling, and that's also going forward. So things could change.
As of the first week of October, the department had given out nine cards to out of state patients: Two in Arizona and seven in Texas, he said.
Do you foresee any big issues coming up for the program?
We're in a really great position right now because there are so many positive things happening. The national conversation about cannabis and medical cannabis is a good mechanism for us all to learn more. I see things moving in a very positive direction. I think we'll see more legalization in states, and we'll get more information on testing very soon.
What did you learn in your last stint with the program?
What I've really learned—maybe the most important thing—is most often people are trying to figure out how to live their lives the best way they can. When people have conditions, and they can't live their lives because they're in so much pain, they need to have access to medications that can help them function. Medical cannabis doesn't take all that pain away, but it can help people live better lives. I think that's one of the most important services we can do for people.