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Editorial: Health Dept. must justify its $50 medical pot fee

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The Department of Health says it plans to start charging medical marijuana patients $50 a year to renew their registry ID cards, and it will use the estimated $550,000 a year in additional revenue to expand the state’s pot supply.

It’s an interesting proposal, considering:

  1. The state does not grow or supply marijuana.
  2. Fees from the current 23 licensed medical marijuana producers already bring in about $500,000 to a program that cost $414,400 to run in 2013.
  3. Fees for producers are slated to increase dramatically for those who boost production levels.
  4. The department plans to license up to 12 more producers, bringing the number to 35. If they all grow the maximum number of plants allowed, the DOH would rake in $3.15 million a year in producer fees.

So why, exactly, does the department need $50 from a Vietnam veteran dealing with cancer linked to his exposure to Agent Orange? And how will that ensure there’s enough medical cannabis to go around?

That’s what Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, wants to know. McSorley, who sponsored the medical pot enabling legislation in 2007, has been critical of the department’s non-transparent rule-making process and wants to know how DOH will use the new money.

Transparency has been an ongoing problem with the program since its inception under the Richardson administration, with the state providing a cloak of secrecy to prescribers and producers of what, under federal law, is an illegal substance – even though many producers advertise their wares and offer weekly specials.

Seven years into this well-intentioned endeavour to provide relief to some of the state’s most vulnerable patients, the public has no real handle on whether the program is well-used or abused, if prescribers on balance are Dr. Hippocrates or Dr. Feelgood, or if the 11,000-plus patients are being treated or taken. Requiring New Mexicans with AIDS or MS or Parkinson’s to pay a $50 fee without clear justification doesn’t improve the situation – or the program’s reputation.

Around 500 critics packed DOH’s recent hearing on proposed rule changes; written comments can be submitted before a July 1 deadline. And while there is no deadline for a decision, the one for putting accountability into the state’s medical marijuana program has long passed.

DOH needs to justify any fee increase and finally pay up on who is prescribing and providing the program’s signature product.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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