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Agency: More pot providers needed

SANTA FE – The state agency that runs New Mexico’s medical marijuana program wants to bring more licensed producers on board and relax restrictions on how many pot plants can be grown after a survey that found the program was struggling to supply a growing number of certified patients.

If approved, the Department of Health’s proposals would likely take effect later this year. They would be the first rule changes to the medical marijuana program since 2010.

“The goal of these adjustments is to ensure an adequate supply of medical cannabis is available for qualified patients in New Mexico,” Department of Health spokesman Kenny Vigil said Friday.

Currently, the state’s 23 licensed medical marijuana producers are limited to growing no more than 150 marijuana plants each.

That would increase under Health Department’s proposed rule change, as producers each would be able to grow up to 150 mature plants and 300 seedlings at a time.

Meanwhile, as many as 12 additional producers could be added to the program, upon approval of the plant rule, to better supply patients. The agency has not been accepting applications from new producers for several years.

Health Secretary Retta Ward said Friday that the proposed changes are based on last year’s DOH-commissioned survey, which found that New Mexico producers were forced to turn away thousands of patients and ration their supply to others. Many producers that responded to the survey said they were frequently out of marijuana.

“We now have a plan to meet current and future patient needs,” Ward said in a statement.

Len Goodman, executive director of the Santa Fe-based NewMexiCann Natural Medicine, one of the state’s 23 current medical marijuana producers, said the proposed changes could double the amount of medical pot available to patients.

However, he cautioned that some producers would have to move into bigger growing locations and invest more money into their operations in order to capitalize on the increased plant limits.

“I think it’s great, assuming that producers take advantage of it,” Goodman said.

He also said the Department of Health still must address whether licensing fees and certain growing restrictions will be affected by the proposed changes. And a shortage of medical marijuana could persist even with the changes, he added.

“It will dramatically improve the situation, but it will not totally resolve the shortage,” Goodman told the Journal .

New Mexico was the first state to have its health department license and regulate a nonprofit medical marijuana distribution system. The medical pot program was approved by the Legislature in 2007 and signed into law by then-Gov. Bill Richardson.

Currently, there are 10,621 patients enrolled in the program, according to the Department of Health. That’s an increase of more than 1,500 patients from early last year.

In other action taken Friday, Health Secretary Ward approved adding two medical conditions to the list of eligible conditions for cannabis use – Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease. That decision took effect immediately.

However, the health secretary rejected the recommendation of a state medical marijuana advisory board to add a third condition – traumatic brain injury – to the list.

In explaining her decision, Ward said there are no studies examining the long-term impact of treating traumatic brain injuries with medical marijuana.

“Given the breadth of traumatic brain injuries, their causes and their effects, and given the dearth of evidence regarding long-term effects of cannabis usage for this condition, I cannot conclude that its addition to the list of qualifying conditions would be consistent with the purpose of the Compassionate Use Act and department regulations,” Ward wrote.

With the addition of two medical conditions, there are now 19 conditions under which patients can apply for a medical marijuana card. Chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder account for the largest segment of certified users.

At least one public hearing on the proposed Department of Health rule change will be held this spring, according to the agency. A date and location for the hearing had not been set as of Friday. After the hearing, the agency will decide whether to adopt the proposed changes.