A controversial proposal to require criminal background checks and photo IDs for medical marijuana patients is headed back to the drawing board.
State Rep. Bob Wooley, R-Chaves, says he never intended to place undue restrictions on patients enrolled in New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program. But after the bill provoked a public outcry, Wooley says he plans to change it.
“I don’t want to hurt anyone or keep anyone from getting their medicine,” he tells SFR.
Last week, when the original version of HB 594 was filed, things weren’t quite so amicable.
“We see no purpose in conducting criminal background checks on sick people who are seeking medicine,” Emily Kaltenbach, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, wrote in an email to SFR at the time. “These are patients, not criminals.”
One medical cannabis patient, who requested anonymity because of concerns about workplace retaliation, says she was upset about the original bill because she believes the checks “would be discriminatory.”
“Even if someone has made a bad decision in their life, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t get treatment for their medical condition,” she says.
Since filing the bill, Wooley says he’s talked with Kaltenbach about his real intentions and understands why patients called him with threatening messages.
“They’re all mad about this because of the way the bill was drafted,” he says. “I would have been mad, too.”
Wooley says he wants to review the New Mexico Department of Health’s Medical Cannabis Program rules, and make sure producers and patients aren’t abusing the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act adopted by lawmakers in 2007. He cites a report produced for groups that campaigned against legalizing marijuana in Colorado last year, which found that 74 percent of teens in drug treatment said they used marijuana bought or grown for someone else.
“We want to stop that,” Wooley says.
So does the Carlsbad Community Anti-Drug/Gang Coalition, which gave Wooley the report.
The coalition's Program Manager Eve Flanigan says her group wants to make sure medical marijuana isn't being transferred from retail outlets to kids.
“Our concern is that marijuana is getting diverted, and that increases addiction rates with our youth,” Flanigan tells SFR. “It also leads to high-risk, [drug-caused] traffic accidents.”
But Eli Goodman, the operations manager at New MexiCann Natural Medicine, a nonprofit medical cannabis producer in Santa Fe, says his building space isn’t a retail outlet at all.
“We have an office,” Goodman says. “It’s a place where patients can safely come to purchase their medicine.” Due to restrictions in New Mexico’s medical cannabis program, Goodman can only sell a limited amount of marijuana and edible products, and only to patients who are enrolled in the program. Still, in an email to his patients last Friday, he emphasized his commitment to keeping marijuana away from kids.
“I personally support keeping all medication out of the hands of anyone other than the individual for whom it was prescribed and most especially children,” Goodman wrote.
Wooley says his concerns center around DOH’s limited staff and resources for checking up on the approximately 3,261 patients licensed to grow their own marijuana. (Personal grow operations are limited to four mature marijuana plants and 12 seedlings.)
“We don’t know if they’re growing more plants than they’re allowed,” Wooley says, adding that he suspects some patients may be growing extra marijuana and selling it to their friends, or even schoolchildren. But he couldn’t point to any specific reports of program abuse.
“We don’t know. That’s what we got to work out here,” he says. He adds that he supports the medical use of marijuana.
“I know people who suffer from [posttraumatic stress disorder],” he says. “Marijuana is the only relief they’ve got.”
While he figures out which rules to tighten, Wooley also says he wants to make sure there is enough legal supply to meet growing demand. As of Feb. 1, DOH reported nearly 8,300 patients enrolled in the Medical Cannabis Program. Wooley says he’ll try to determine whether more nonprofit producers are needed, or if the 23 current producers should be allowed to grow more plants.
“If more people come into the program, then we need to increase the supply so we can meet the demand,” he says. He also worries that some rural patients have to drive up to 300 miles to get plants with strains designed to help with unique symptoms like pain, inflammation and nausea. He also wants to review why producers are required to be set up as nonprofit organizations and determine if rules should be applied to medical marijuana advertising.
Wooley still believes some DOH regulations need to be changed. For instance, current rules don’t require patient growers to inform police that they have a valid personal production license when cops find marijuana plants in their homes.
“That puts a big burden on our police departments,” Wooley says. “It should be like a concealed gun carry permit. When I get pulled over, I hand my permit to the cop at the same time I hand him my driver’s license.”
DOH rules already require that cannabis program patients and caregivers “be given an opportunity to produce the registry identification card before any arrest or criminal charges or other penalties are initiated.”
In addition, DOH has a 24-hour hotline that law enforcement officials can call to verify a patient’s enrollment in the program.
But the system doesn’t always work. In 2008, Eddy County officials settled with medical cannabis patient Leonard French for $5,000 after his marijuana plants were seized by sheriff deputies who didn’t realize he was licensed to grow.
For now, patients and producers seem willing to give Wooley time to amend his bill. He doesn’t know yet if he’ll be done before the 2013 session ends, but promises he’ll be back next year with a bill that everyone can support.
(Lawmakers are also considering HB 465, a bill by state Rep. Emily Kane, D-Bernalillo, to reduce penalties for marijuana possession, and SJM 31, a memorial by state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Bernalillo, to study the potential economic impact of legalizing marijuana.)
Kaltenbach, for her part, says DPA is eager to see and comment on the changes to the bill “so we can continue to fight to protect thousands of sick New Mexicans’ legal right to the most appropriate medication to relieve their symptoms and suffering.”