Medical cannabis patients with expiring green cards or driver's licenses have a grace period for at least as long as emergency orders due to COVID-19 are in effect.

That's good news for the 82,147 people enrolled in the program and who are benefitting from the Department of Health's decision that came after the state both closed its motor vehicle division and ordered doctors to limit services.

"I think the state did a really great job promptly responding to the emergency," says Jason Barker an advocate with Safe Access New Mexico.

The advocacy group sent a letter to the state requesting that expiration dates for medical cards be extended soon after the first statewide emergency orders went into effect, Barker tells SFR. Days later, the NMDOH announced the rule change.

Without the extension, he says, it could be very difficult for patients who use medical cannabis to treat ailments such as severe chronic pain, cancer and epilepsy to obtain the medications they depend on.

Part of the problem, he says, is that patients need access to doctors to complete the state's paperwork every year. But public health orders have banned all medical visits that are not an emergency, and many primary care physicians are not taking new appointments.

Patient must see a doctor on a yearly basis for their cards to remain valid, and must apply to the Department of Health to renew the permission every three years. The majority of patients who are part of the medical cannabis program to treat severe illnesses get their card through their primary medical providers, says Barker. If a patient has insurance, these primary care visits are generally covered.

Many dispensaries also provide onsite doctors' appointments to enroll in the program or refer patients to doctors who specialize specifically in medical cannabis, Barker says these appointments can be very expensive and are much less likely to be covered by insurance.

The department's order extends the expiration date for medical cannabis cards set to expire between March 11, 2020 through June 13, 2020 by 90 days in order to give patients extra time to see their health care providers. Patients, who are required to show photo IDs at purchase, are also permitted to use a drivers license that expired on or after March 11. The expired licenses will be accepted as part of applications from patients, caregivers, and people growing personal plants at home who want to enroll or reenroll in the state's medical cannabis program.

Even without new patients, dispensaries can barely keep up with current demand.

"The pandemic really has not impacted dispensaries in a negative way," says Erik Briones, owner of Minerva Canna. Briones tells SFR his business has seen record sales since the pandemic was identified.

During the first few weeks of the crisis, he says both the Santa Fe and Albuquerque locations had a hard time keeping fully stocked because many patients have been hoarding medicine, buying enough medical cannabis to last them months at a time. The situation is "certainly causing problems in the supply chain for us right now," Briones says.

The dispensaries are back at pace with current demand, but every new emergency order from the governor sends a new wave of patients rushing in to stock up. He says this is a short term problem fueled by people's fears, and reassures patients that there is no danger of actual scarcity.

"There will always be enough medicine available," Briones says, "there are enough growers doing a really great job out there that I don't think that we are going to run out."

Like all other dispensaries in Santa Fe, Minerva dispensary has closed its doors to walk-in patients and is only taking phone and online orders. At the Santa Fe location, patients can pick up their orders at a drive-through window on the southwest side of the building, though Briones asks patients to wait in the parking lot if there is a line so as not to create a dangerous situation on Cerrillos Road.

Some, such as Fruit of the Earth Organics, are in the process of applying for a license to do home deliveries. However, the process is more complicated than it might seem, says owner Lyra Barron. In order make deliveries, the dispensary has to go through a whole new round of background checks for employees, buy special equipment such as locking steel boxes and special safes for the products, and acquire a company car designated specifically for delivery service.

Tips from Dispensary Owners for Getting Your Medicine During COVID-19:

  • Call in your order ahead of time or place your order online. Dispensary owners tell SFR their employees are working around the clock to sanitize surfaces, restock and run orders out to the curb. All of this means you could be idling in the parking lot for quite a while if you wait till you get there to decide what you want. And, if you call ahead, you will not be disappointed if what you want is out of stock. Many dispensaries will send you a text when your order is ready for pickup.
  • Respect employees’ time and health by making sure you have your card and ID ready when you call and when you go to pick up your order, and be patient and respectful even if your experience is a bit hectic. Wear a homemade mask when picking up your order to help protect the employee serving you.
  • Respect other patients by only ordering what you need and don’t hoard medicine. Every dispensary we spoke to assures us that they will not run out of cannabis. If they don’t have what you want this time, check a different store or ask them to give you a call when your favorite product is back in stock. If you want to order enough to last you two weeks in quarantine, that’s fine. But you don’t need to buy three months worth of cannabis.
  • Check your dispensary’s hours before ordering. Many are sticking to regular hours, but some have cut their hours short during the crisis.