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Medical marijuana in short supply

Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Demand for medical marijuana under the state’s five-year-old program has soared, but supply of the weed for debilitating conditions has been strained to the point that New Mexico producers have turned away thousands of patients in recent months and rationed the supply to others.

Those are among the findings of a newly released survey of pot producers and patients commissioned by the state Department of Health.

“I have had to purchase from the street at times, and the quality is usually better, and it’s cheaper. That’s not right,” commented one patient whose name was edited from the 65-page report, which was provided to the Journal in response to a records request.

Another unnamed patient reported “producers running out of medical cannabis very quickly, ie: the same day they send an email stating what is available to purchase.”

New Mexico was the first state to have its state Department of Health license and regulate a nonprofit medical marijuana distribution delivery system.

But the program is experiencing growing pains.

The number of licensed producers has dropped from a high of 25 to 23, while the number of active patients certified to buy medical cannabis hit 10,289 as of Oct. 31, according to state officials, increasing by 1,200 from earlier this year.

The number of medical conditions eligible for cannabis use has grown to 17, with PTSD and chronic pain accounting for the largest segments of users.

Last week, a state medical marijuana advisory board recommended the addition of three new medical conditions to the list, including Parkinson’s disease and traumatic brain injury. No decision has yet been made by the DOH.

The survey was conducted by an independent contractor in August and September. About 25 percent of the 2,700 randomly selected users completed and returned the surveys. Respondents ranged from 19 to 83 years of age, with the average being 49.

DOH is still reviewing the survey results, said medical cannabis program coordinator Andrea Sundberg.

“We are taking it seriously,” she said. “We don’t want to do a knee jerk reaction. We’re analyzing it to determine what the next best steps are going to be.”

The survey asked about weekly usage and purchases, and concluded that just under 10,000 patients in the program would need more than 11,000 pounds yearly. But producers are reporting harvests that would provide only about 2,200 pounds.

“How can we get medicine if more patients apply every day but the amount of medicine stays the same,” asked one survey participant. “This program has brought me so much, using mind-numbing drugs never worked for me. What do I do when the well dries up?”

Another commented: “Medical grade is more available on the street than from nonprofit org!”

Sundberg said the nonprofit producers licensed by the state are allowed to grow only 150 plants at a time, but yields have recently increased as producers “have learned more about production and how to get a higher yield per plant.”

The DOH survey on medical marijuana supply found that the biggest problem faced was the producer being "out of product"; the second most cited problem was price.  (Journal File)

The DOH survey on medical marijuana supply found that the biggest problem faced was the producer being “out of product”; the second most cited problem was price. (Journal File)

The survey found that the biggest problem in obtaining cannabis was that the producer was “out of product.” The second most cited obstacle was affordability.

Producers respond

Of the 20 licensed producers who responded to the survey, more than half said there were unscheduled periods of time in the last three months during which they were “out of product.”

The survey reported that producers were closed a total of 342 days in the past three months, with 6,643 patients turned away. Nine of the 20 said they rationed marijuana during the past three months to more than 6,000 patients. About two-thirds of patients turned away were able to buy marijuana in one to two weeks.

One patient reported paying $60 for 4 grams of medical marijuana. One producer was charging $800 an ounce.

“An ounce of regular cannabis on streets goes for $60 … medical costs $265 an ounce. Which would you buy?” asked another survey participant.

Sundberg said program officials “want our patients to have safe access and that includes not having to go to these unknown sources to purchase. Unfortunately, we can’t control the pricing on it. The producers are the ones who control the prices,who set their price per gram.”

Albuquerque attorney Patricia Monaghan said the number of producers licensed by the state to sell medical marijuana hasn’t increased since Gov. Susana Martinez took office in January 2011.

“They need to license more producers,” Monaghan said, adding that doing so would conceivably lower the price for patients.

Many who responded to the survey thanked the DOH for offering the program, with one noting, “This program is a huge blessing. I feel better not being a potential inmate.”

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