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Backlog of medical pot applications criticized

SANTA FE – The New Mexico Department of Health came under fire Thursday for its handling of a backlog of applications for medical marijuana identification cards, with one Democratic senator suggesting the agency could face court sanctions in the case of a lawsuit and the state auditor calling the situation a “public health emergency.”

The average time for processing a medical marijuana ID card is now 43 days, continuing to exceed the 30-day limit set by state law, according to DOH.

But an agency spokesman said the department is making progress in processing a surge of requests for the state-required ID cards – both from new patients and those seeking renewals.

“We take our mission to provide safe access to medicine for New Mexico’s qualified medical cannabis patients seriously,” agency spokesman David Morgan said.

However, although the agency submitted a written update to members of the interim legislative committee that met Thursday at the state Capitol, no DOH officials actually showed up at the hearing.

That prompted sharp criticism from Democratic lawmakers – just one Republican committee member attended the hearing – and several medical cannabis patients and growers.

“It’s obvious the Department of Health is not putting the focus on the patient,” said Sen. Nancy Rodriguez, D-Santa Fe, vice chairwoman of the interim Disabilities Concerns Subcommittee.

“Things do have to change – and they will,” she added during a later stage of Thursday’s hearing.

The number of people enrolled in New Mexico’s medical marijuana program, which was launched in 2007 has skyrocketed in recent years – from roughly 14,000 a year ago to 26,568, as of June.

Most of those patients have been diagnosed with either post-traumatic stress order or severe chronic pain, which are among the nearly two dozen qualifying conditions under which patients are eligible for medical cannabis identification cards.

Current state law requires the Department of Health to approve or deny an application for ID cards within 30 days of receipt. The cards expire one year after being granted, so qualified patients must go through the renewal process annually.

The Department of Health has struggled to meet the 30-day deadline, but DOH spokesman Morgan told the Journal that the agency has taken recent steps to address the issue.

The 43-day average time for processing a medical marijuana ID card is down from 60 days in June, Morgan said.

He also said the department has doubled the number of full-time employees working on processing applications – from four to eight workers – and has three temporary employees helping out.

Asked why no agency officials showed up to the hearing, Morgan said that agency officials intend to take part in a separate legislative hearing on the matter later this month and that it would be a “challenge” to have to appear before two legislative committees in one month.

Meanwhile, the state’s auditor and attorney general are looking into the backlog, and state Auditor Tim Keller on Thursday called the situation a “public health emergency.”

The auditor, a Democrat, testified that the Department of Health has treated the issue as more of a bureaucratic headache than an emergency, saying, “It’s been a slow sweeping under the rug of this issue.”

Keller also said the backlog, if not fixed, could lead to negative audit findings that would put the state at risk of potentially costly lawsuits.

That led to Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, saying the Department of Health could possibly be held in contempt and its Cabinet secretary, Lynn Gallagher, jailed for failing to comply with the law.

Another legislator, Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said lawmakers could pursue some changes to the state’s current medical marijuana laws during next year’s 60-day legislative session, including the annual ID card renewal requirement.

And Sen. Rodriguez, the subcommittee’s vice chairwoman, said the Department of Health’s recent steps are not enough.

“The law says 30 days – not 43 days,” she said. “To me, that’s a violation of the law.”

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