Bills try to protect medical cannabis - Albuquerque Journal

Bills try to protect medical cannabis

Willie Ford, founder of R. Greenleaf Organics, at his company’s facility in Southeast Albuquerque. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

As lawmakers weigh legalization of recreational cannabis, advocates are looking to ensure that recreational use will not interfere with the state’s medicinal cannabis program.

“I would say that our legislation not only aims to protect the medical program, it aims to grow it and there are lots of reasons (why),” said Ben Lewinger, executive director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, one of the organizations that is proposing legislation for the session, which starts in January.

In several other states, the adoption of a recreational program has led to declines in the number of medical dispensaries and people enrolled in the medical program. Because of that, nearly every stakeholder interviewed by the Journal spoke about wanting to protect the patients in New Mexico’s medical cannabis program, which surpassed 100,000 cardholders in 2020 and may have different needs than recreational customers.

Everest Apothecary’s newest location opened this month at 10660 Unser NW. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Oregon saw a slow but steady migration away from the medical program after it legalized cannabis in 2014, as patients decided it wasn’t worth keeping a medical card.

TJ Sheehy, director of analytics and research for the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which oversees the state’s recreational cannabis program, said just two or three medical-only dispensaries remain in the state, and no medical-only processors remain.

“The biggest effect on legalization on medical (patients) has been this indirect effect of the supply chain drying up,” Sheehy said.

Possible solutions

To avoid a similar outcome in New Mexico, Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, has called for medical cannabis to be exempted from gross receipts taxes, and has advocated creating a patient subsidy program for low-income and chronically ill patients. This approach would reduce costs for New Mexicans enrolled in the program, and hopefully keep those seeking medicine from moving out of the program, he said.

However, that approach doesn’t go far enough for some in the industry. Willie Ford, founder and board chair of R. Greenleaf Organics, is pushing for a separate bill that would dramatically expand the medical program by adding a separate “wellness” track that any adult New Mexico resident could enroll in. Those interested in applying would pay a fee, and be entered into the medical program over the ensuing six months.

An Everest Apothecary staff member cuts up cannabis buds as she prepares to weigh out an order for a customer Dec. 18.

Ford described the program as “de facto legalization,” and said it would increase access to cannabis without harming the medical industry.

“For us, when we start talking about legalization, you’re talking about taking a lot of the work we’ve done and putting it in the garbage,” Ford said. “And I don’t think that we’ve been working in vain for all these years.”

Ford said earlier this month he as still seeking a sponsor for the bill.

Lewinger of the cannabis chamber said legislation his organization is proposing would mesh recreational and medical programs. That would allow a single facility to participate in both programs overseen by a single licensing agency, while also allowing medical patients access to certain strains and delivery mechanisms.

The chamber also intends to endorse Ford’s proposal to add “wellness” as a qualifying condition.

“We would love to see an expansion of the medical program,” he said. “We would love to see more qualifying conditions.”

Current qualifying conditions include post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer, severe chronic pain and 25 other conditions.

Today, New Mexico’s medical cannabis program is going strong, with 101,770 active patients enrolled in the program, according to the Department of Health’s November report on patient statistics. As of Nov. 30, 7,541 individuals have personal production licenses, DOH spokeswoman Marisa Maez said.

Lewinger said legislation the chamber supports will seek to protect medical program patients by ensuring a steady supply of cannabis, expanding qualifying conditions and making sure different types of cannabis delivery like highly concentrated oils remain available to the patients.

“Everything that was in last year’s bill in terms of protecting patient supply is also in the legislation that we’re pushing this year,” he said. “It’s on the dispensaries to make sure that they have enough medicine to cover medical patients before they do any adult use sales.”

Another protection sought by both Martinez and the chamber for medical users is eliminating Gross Receipt Taxes and sales taxes for medical users which will lower the overall price medical users pay. Currently there is no uniform approach to applying GRT to dispensary purchases, Lewinger said.

He said he hopes to see those taxes removed for all cannabis purchases, both medical and recreational, and replaced with a unified cannabis tax rate across the state for recreational users.

Lewinger said the biggest change to the medical cannabis program in New Mexico under his bill would be the creation of a “medical cannabis subsidy program” for low-income medical cannabis patients. This fund was proposed in the failed 2020 legislation to legalize recreational cannabis.

Producers are currently capped at 1,750 plants, but may apply for an increase of 500 plants in 2021, she said.

Lewinger said that if recreational cannabis is legalized he would like to see medical patients have access to the same level of customer service and safety that recreational users will have rather than having to go to separate facilities or through separate entrances.

“The way that can happen is by not recreating a completely different system for adult-use cannabis, but really just leaning into what is working really good with the medical program,” he said.


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