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State adopts new limits on number of medical pot plants

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Starting next week, New Mexico’s plant limit for licensed medical cannabis providers will be set at 1,750 mature plants – less than the current limit but far higher than in previous years – under a rule change adopted by state Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel.

However, the decision to forge ahead with the new plant limit immediately drew opposition from some medical cannabis producers who had argued it was too low to keep up with the program’s steady growth.

It also means that producers might have to destroy some mature cannabis plants, as a memo issued by the Department of Health on Thursday said the reduced plant limit will not be phased in.

Duke Rodriguez, the president and CEO of Ultra Health LLC, among the largest of the state’s 35 medical cannabis producers, called the new rules a “train wreck” that would ultimately hurt patients.

“That decision is going to exacerbate a shortage problem we already faced about medicine in the market,” Rodriguez told the Journal.

He also said Ultra Health was evaluating its legal options in response to the new rules being adopted.

However, a Department of Health spokesman said the agency had to move quickly to adopt the rule changes due to tight legal guidelines.

The new limits will replace an emergency rule – adopted by the department in March in response to a judge’s order – that raised the plant count for nonprofit producers from 450 to 2,500 plants. That emergency rule was set to expire this month.

“The department has been transparent with producers and the public about its intention to change the plant count to 1,750 since the proposed rule was published on June 11,” DOH spokesman David Morgan said Thursday.

Kunkel, an appointee of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, adopted the rules largely as initially proposed. Two minor changes were made, including adjusting the allowable height of a cannabis seedling from 8 inches to 12 inches.

In addition to the new plant limit, other rule changes include increasing the annual licensing fee for producers and eliminating a $50 replacement fee for lost patient identification cards. The new rules will take effect Tuesday.

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 as new qualifying conditions have been added.

There were more than 76,000 active patients around the state as of last month, compared with 48,861 in September 2017.

Meanwhile, the Department of Health is already facing a separate legal challenge for refusing to issue medical cannabis identification cards to three out-of-state residents with qualifying conditions.

The changes to the medical cannabis program come as New Mexico is also weighing joining the ranks of other states that have legalized recreational marijuana use.

After a legalization bill stalled in the Senate during this year’s 60-day legislative session, Lujan Grisham established a task force to study other states’ experiences and come up with a recommendation that could be presented to lawmakers in 2020.

Tripp Stelnicki, the governor’s spokesman, said this week the Lujan Grisham administration was not being inconsistent by supporting legalization efforts while at the same time rejecting the medical cannabis license applications from out-of-state residents.

“It’s really about ensuring our cannabis policy is not dictated by lawsuits from a particularly litigious individual who has an interest in steering the program toward his interests,” Stelnicki said in an interview, referring to Rodriguez.

He also said the wording change in state law was intended to provide for reciprocity, or allowing out-of-state residents who are already enrolled in another state’s medical cannabis program to have access to New Mexico’s program.

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