Spleef BeefsSmoke ’em while you got ’em
As the minutes tick down until a new administration takes over the fourth floor of the Roundhouse, the state’s medical cannabis program faces a critical juncture.
2010 was a big year for pot. Arizona and New Jersey joined the medical cannabis smoke circle, which now consists of 15 states in which medical marijuana is legal. Californians even considered legalizing marijuana altogether on their Nov. 2 ballot (although the measure ultimately failed).
But in New Mexico, the three-year-old program continued to struggle with issues of supply and demand and suddenly faced a new threat: Gov.-elect Susana Martinez who, on the campaign trail, expressed opposition to the program.
For now, the nation’s strictest medical cannabis program, dubbed “schoolmarmish” by Time magazine, is trying to insulate itself from New Mexico’s state budget crisis.
Approximately 200 new medical marijuana patients are currently approved each month. Out of the 17 state-licensed marijuana producers, 11 are currently up and running, according to Department of Health spokeswoman Deborah Busemeyer. With an estimated 3,000 patients approved, and stringent caps on production, high demand and short supply is a matter of simple math.
Less-simple math, perhaps, played into the DOH’s 2010 amendments to the regulations governing the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act. Those proposals received mixed reviews from the medical marijuana community, and were finalized in the final days of 2010, on Dec. 17.
Application fees for producers will jump from $100 to $1,000; renewal fees will be $5,000 after six months, $10,000 after a year, $20,000 after two years and $30,000 after three years.
Jeremy Theoret, an Albuquerque lawyer representing two producers and six applicants, says he expects producers will pass that cost on to patients.
Former Medical Cannabis Program Coordinator Melissa Milam is concerned about the cost of medical marijuana to patients living on disability.
“I’m shocked at how little they live on,” Milam says. “If you have a $600 disability [check] and pay for rent, your light bill and groceries, I doubt you have $300 left over for an ounce.”
Milam hopes to start a “union” of sorts for medical marijuana patients, to help them respond to program changes and other issues.
Busemeyer says the $30,000 fee is based on what it costs the program to be self-sufficient, and is reasonable given that producers expect to gross more than $400,000 by the end of their third year in production. The fees increase gradually to accommodate the more-limited resources of producers just starting out, Busemeyer tells SFR.
The new fees are the highest in the nation and, even with its new higher plant limit of 150, the program still has the tightest restriction on the number of plants per producer.
At a public hearing on the proposed changes earlier in December, state Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Bernalillo, said increasing efficiency of scale by raising the plant limit would increase patient choice and drive down prices. Although he praised the Dec. 17 increase as a step in the right direction, he’s still concerned about the high producer fees.
“Really what we’re talking about is a $30,000 fee over whatever the gross receipts tax is…The idea is the department definitely needs to be funded properly so it can provide security and oversight for those involved. So we’ll see if this works,” McSorley says.
Busemeyer tells SFR that DOH had feedback from some producers who said the previous 95-plant limit was useful for limiting federal scrutiny of the program, as well as comments recommending the increase.
The DOH approved eight more producers before the end of the year, but expects it will be three to six months before those producers have usable product.
McSorley says he thinks the program still needs five to 10 more producers to supply the current volume of patients.
The volume of applications hasn’t purportedly increased substantially, despite the impending threat of a new administration and, presumably, a new DOH secretary [SFReporter.com: “Waiting with Baked Breath”].
While campaigning, Martinez said she would try to repeal the medical marijuana law because it conflicts with federal law, and because she believes prescription medications can meet the same needs.
Milam has heard rumors a bill will be introduced to repeal the law.
“If that does happen, we will hopefully kill it in its first committee hearing,” she says.