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Higher fees worry NM marijuana producers

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

About 11,000 New Mexicans licensed to buy medical marijuana would pay a first-ever fee of $50 a year to renew their registry ID cards under regulations proposed by the state Department of Health.

Nonprofit producers that grow medical pot say the proposed rules would also triple the cost of their annual licensing fees to $90,000 for those that grow the proposed maximum of 150 mature plants and 300 seedlings.

Producers say the proposed regulations would force growers to raise prices, encouraging medical marijuana buyers to seek out illegal sources.

“These proposals are just going to push patients to the street,” said Erik Briones, owner of Minerva Canna Group, one of the state’s 23 licensed nonprofit medical cannabis producers.

“By having all these rules and regulations, it is forcing patients to commit illegal acts by going to the streets to buy their medicine,” he said. “If you have a program that no one wants to participate in, the program will die.”

A Health Department official said the proposed regulations are intended to expand the supply of medical marijuana and that the higher fee will apply only to producers who choose to grow more plants.

“The department does not anticipate the proposed rule change will result in greater medication costs for qualified patients,” department spokesman Kenny Vigil said in a written response.

The $50 fee for a registry ID card is intended to help pay the agency’s operational costs, which totalled $414,400 in 2013, Vigil said.

The agency does not receive an appropriation to pay for the medical cannabis program, he said. The $50 registry fee would generate about $550,000 a year, given the current number of patients.

The agency last year collected about $500,000 from licensing fees paid by 23 nonprofit producers, Vigil said. The proposal would also allow the department to license up to 12 additional producers.

Program costs are expected to rise as the number of patients and growers increase, Vigil said. The program recently hired two part-time physicians at a cost of about $138,000 a year, increasing the staff size to seven, and the agency may hire additional staff, he said.

Health department officials said in February they want to increase the number of licensed producers and relax restrictions on how many pot plants can be grown. The change was in response to a survey that found the program was struggling to supply a growing number of registered patients.

Nonprofit producers can now grow a maximum 150 marijuana plants. The proposed regulations would increase the maximum to 150 mature plants and 300 seedlings.

The agency also plans to change the licensing fee structure for producers, who now pay a license fee based on how long they have been in business. Producers licensed for more than three years now pay the maximum $30,000 a year.

Under the proposed rules, producers would pay based on the number of plants they grow. Producers would pay $20,000 for 50 adult female plants and $10,000 for 100 seedlings, or a maximum $90,000 a year.

Vigil said a producer that has 50 adult female plants and 100 seedlings would continue to pay $30,000 a year, he said.

“The department can’t speculate what changes the (producers) will make to their business plans at this point,” he said.

For patients licensed to grow their own medical pot, the proposal would also trim the number of mature plants they can grow from four to two.

Vigil said the Health Department anticipates that the proposed plant increase for nonprofit producers will be sufficient to meet patients’ needs.

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