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Medical marijuana program may expand

Members of a New Mexico Medical Cannabis Advisory Board on Friday recommended adding opioid addiction as a qualifying condition for the state’s medical marijuana program. Health Secretary Kathy Konkel has indicated she plans to approve the recommendation. (Julio Cortez/Associated Press)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico might not be joining some other Western states in legalizing recreational marijuana use – at least not yet – but the state’s medical cannabis program could undergo some big changes in the coming months.

A bill awaiting final action on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk would allow for the use of medical marijuana in schools, while also extending the length of an approved patient identification card from one year to three years.

In addition, members of the state’s Medical Cannabis Advisory Board recommended on Friday via a 4-0 vote adding opioid addiction as a qualifying condition in the state’s program.

The board made a similar recommendation twice before – in 2017 and 2018 – but it was rejected both times by former Health Secretary Lynn Gallagher, an appointee of ex-Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican. Martinez also vetoed a 2017 bill that sought to add opioid addiction as a qualifying condition for getting a medical marijuana license.

The outcome is expected to be different this time around, because Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office in January, directed the Department of Health during her State of the State address to adopt the addition of opioid addiction as a qualifying condition.

Her choice to run the DOH, Kathy Kunkel, suggested Friday that she will approve the recommendation in the coming weeks.

“Using medical cannabis is not intended as a substitute to opioids; it is medicine that can alleviate some of the painful symptoms that come with recovering from opioid dependence,” Kunkel said in a statement. “Adding this as a qualifying condition for the Medical Cannabis Program is the next step towards this administration’s efforts to continue reducing the number of opioid-related deaths in New Mexico.”

Jessica Gelay of the New Mexico Drug Policy Alliance cited the state’s high drug overdose rate during Friday’s hearing, saying that every 36 hours, a New Mexican dies of an overdose.

“This is the public health crisis of our time,” Gelay said.

Meanwhile, there are also recommendations awaiting final action to add Alzheimer’s disease, autism and substance abuse disorders to the list of qualifying conditions.

New Mexico launched its medical marijuana program in 2007 – the law is officially called the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act – and the number of people enrolled in the program has skyrocketed in recent years. There were 70,109 active patients around the state as of last month, compared with 48,861 in September 2017.

Most of the patients have been diagnosed with either post-traumatic stress disorder or severe chronic pain, which are among the nearly two dozen conditions under which patients are eligible for medical cannabis identification cards.

But the state’s medical marijuana program has also endured growing pains, and the Department of Health this month adopted an emergency rule raising the plant count for nonprofit producers from 450 to 2,500 plants.

That was in response to a judge’s order in a 2016 lawsuit filed by filed by a former Bernalillo County resident who argued she couldn’t find sufficient CBD oil – a product derived from cannabis – to treat her daughter’s medical condition in New Mexico and subsequently had to move elsewhere.

Currently, 25 of the state’s 35 licensed producers have expressed an interest in upping their plant count under the emergency rule, Medical Cannabis Program Director Kenny Vigil said Friday.

However, Josh McCurdy of Ruidoso, who heads a state patient advocate alliance, said there’s still more work to be done, especially when it comes to testing requirements for medical cannabis and giving patients more flexibility in how they consume cannabis.

“I believe we need to open up the licenses and have more competitiveness,” McCurdy told the Journal.

But he also said there’s a sense the new administration is willing to work more closely with patients, adding, “There’s a lot of hope.”

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