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Growing the program

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

When the medical cannabis program passed the Legislature in 2007, it included seven debilitating medical conditions – cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, hospice care and spinal cord injuries – in the statute.

It gave authority to the Cannabis Advisory Board appointed by the Secretary for the Department of Health and the Department of Health to expand the number of diagnoses eligible for the program.

Since then, the board has approved 14 additional medical conditions, including PTSD and severe chronic pain.

Those two conditions account for the majority of the 68,000 patients holding medical marijuana cards – 33,000 with PTSD and more than 22,000 with severe chronic pain.

Patients with a cancer diagnosis account for 3,700 cardholders – the third leading diagnosis.

The advisory board meets twice a year and has so far declined to add treatment of opioid addiction as one of the qualifying medical conditions.

All of this adds up to a heavy workload for the Medical Cannabis Division of the state Department of Health, which receives from 150 to 800 applications a day from potential patients, according to division director Kenny Vigil.

“It takes 30 days to process, and if approved, it takes five days to mail out a card,” Vigil said. “In five years, no patient has been denied a card.”

Not all cards are issued within 30 days.

The lack of signatures from the prescriber and failure to attach a copy of a New Mexico driver’s license or state identification card are the biggest slowdowns for approval, Vigil said.

The department recommends people renewing their medical marijuana cards submit applications 90 days before their old card expires.

Each application undergoes medical review to make sure the medical provider has authority to prescribe, and the diagnosis in the application falls under the 21 qualifying conditions approved by the Medical Cannabis Advisory Board. Any health care provider with prescription privileges can prescribe medical marijuana.

While the number of licensed producers has remained steady at 35, the number of dispensaries has increased over the past two years. Some are opening in smaller towns.

Each dispensary must comply with local zoning ordinances and is inspected by the cannabis division in terms of location and security.

There are unannounced site inspections, Vigil said.

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