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Medical pot producers in NM make case for confidentiality

SANTA FE – Medical marijuana producers told state health officials Wednesday that disclosing the locations of growing facilities would invite criminals to burglarize the sites, while open-records advocates countered that greater transparency will help ensure fair and effective management of the state’s cannabis program.

“We have a product that criminals want,” said Eric Briones, founder of the Minerva Canna Group of Los Ranchos, one of 23 nonprofits licensed by the state Department of Health to grow and sell medical pot. Minerva must conduct its business in cash because banks don’t take deposits from cannabis growers, he said. “We have cannabis and we have cash.”

Briones was among dozens of speakers at a New Mexico Department of Health hearing Wednesday in Santa Fe, held to gather public comment about proposed rule changes to New Mexico’s medical cannabis program. The proposed changes would remove a confidentiality provision that conceals information about licensed nonprofit producers, including the locations of growing facilities and the identities of board members and employees.

Craig Erickson, an attorney acting as the hearing officer for the proposed rules, said he will draft a recommendation within 30 days for Health Secretary Rhetta Ward, who will make a final decision about the new rules.

Kip Purcell, an attorney who filed a lawsuit in July against the Department of Health seeking public disclosure about medical cannabis producers, said growers knowingly assumed the risk of producing a product that remains illegal under federal law.

“The producers went into this with open eyes,” Purcell said after the hearing. “In the meantime, citizens here have a right to know who their neighbors are.”

Purcell filed the lawsuit on behalf of freelance journalist Peter St. Cyr and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. It contends that concealing the identities of dispensaries and producers violates the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.

The proposed regulations would maintain confidentiality for groups applying to become licensed nonprofit producers until the closure of the application period. That provision prompted Attorney General Hector Balderas to send a letter to Department of Health officials on Monday saying that the 2007 medical cannabis laws doesn’t authorize the agency to conceal applications from nonprofits.

Tania Maestas, director of the Attorney General’s open government division, told a hearing officer Wednesday that Balderas does not advocate disclosing the names of people who have received a personal production license, which allows them to grow their own supply of medical pot. More than 4,000 New Mexicans have personal production licenses.

Maestas clarified the intent of the letter, saying Balderas objected to a proposed rule change that would create a specific exemption for people with personal production licenses, which would allow the agency to conceal their identities.

Maestas said the Department of Health already has the authority to conceal patients with personal production licenses because they are among some 20,000 New Mexicans licensed to legally purchase medical marijuana. The state’s medical marijuana law specifically authorizes the Department of Health to keep confidential the identities of patients licensed to legally purchase medical pot.