Medical cannabis bill would let vets enroll without diagnosis

Jaylene Kost, office manager at New MexiCann Natural Medicine, weighs out a variety of cannabis called Medicine Woman on Thursday. A bill before state lawmakers would allow veterans more leeway in obtaining a medical marijuana card.  Jane Phillips/The New Mexican/FILE PHOTO

Patients enrolled in the state’s medical cannabis program are facing extended delays in renewing their cards because the New Mexico Department of Health is having trouble keeping up with surging demand from new applicants.

Patients and advocates say the wait is forcing seriously ill people to resort to purchasing their medicine on the black market.

“It’s backing patients up against a wall and hard spot,” said Nicole Morales, chief executive officer for the patient advocacy group Empowering Medical Patients and Compassionate Treatment (EMPACT). “They don’t want to go to the black market. They don’t want to be criminals. They don’t want to purchase stuff that was sent across the border in a tire. They want medical-grade, tested cannabis.”

According to state statute, the department has 30 days to approve or deny an application, but spokesman Kenny Vigil said in an email Monday that the current wait for new cards and card renewals is about 40 to 50 days.

Other sources told the New Mexican, however, that some patients have waited 60, 90 and even 120 days for their cards to be renewed.

Jalyene Kost, office manger for New Mexicann Natural Medicine— a Santa Fe-based medical cannabis-dispensary — said when she submitted her renewal application on May 7 she was told it would take “at least 60 days.”

Kost said the dispensary can not sell medicine to patients whose card is expired, which means they can either go without or purchase cannabis illegally.

“Most people are understanding,” Kost said. “But a lot of these people are cancer patients who are going through a 90-day [treatment] protocol,” which can get interrupted by a lag in card renewals.

Vigil didn’t respond to requests from The New Mexican to interview someone from the department about the issue on the phone or in person.

But he said in a written statement that the delays are related to increased enrollment in the program, which has ballooned from about 14,000 patients to about 25,000 patients in the past year.

Vigil said in his email statement that “in order to get caught up” the department has purchased two new printers, hired two new employees and two temporary employees and is “working to hire two additional full-time employees,” to work in the program.

Employees have also had to work six days per week on the effort, according to Vigil. “Our goal is to get caught up sometime this summer,” he said.

“We’ve been dealing with this since about March,” Morales said. “At first it was just a few patients here and there and then it turned into 60- to 90-day waits, and we ran into hundreds of patients [who were having the problem],” she said. “Some patients are waiting up to 120 days.”

Morales said she’s also spoken to medical professionals — who sign off on and in many cases submit renewal applications for their patients — who say they’ve tried calling the Department of Health to impress upon the agency how important it is that certain patients get their medication but that the response they’ve gotten has made them afraid of “some backlash.”

“They know they can’t be blacklisted for helping patients,” Morales said. “But on the back end, we all know how that goes.”

Aaron Barela, a patient who suffers from PTSD — like the majority of the patients enrolled in the program — said he recently visited the department to find out if he could get a temporary authorization to purchase cannabis while his renewal is pending. Barela said he was treated rudely by a department employee who first told him it would take 30 days to process his renewal but as their interaction became more hostile revised the delay to 60 days, then to 90 days, “because she got mad at us.”

Eventually, Barela said, the woman used an expletive and told him to get out.

Barela said the confrontation nearly turned physical when a male employee became involved. Department staff need to be better trained to deal with the public, especially people with mental illness, he said.

According to Barela, the male employee responded with “confrontation and aggression.” He said, “I almost threw him off the fourth floor, but I controlled myself knowing it was going to turn out wrong if I didn’t control my PTSD.”

Asked about the incident Vigil said in a written statement “On Friday, a patient came to check on the status of their application. The patient became agitated and for the safety of [program] employees, the patient was repeatedly asked to leave the building.”

The Drug Policy Alliance highlighted the logjam earlier this month in a press release that called for the Department of Health to address the issue more swiftly.

“We are very concerned about the patients who are put at risk for criminal penalties, prosecution and may be forced into the illicit market to maintain their supply of medicine,” policy coordinator Jessica Gelaysaid in a written statement. “While we appreciate that there is a plan in place to deal with the problem in time, we believe that more could be done to address this serious situation, affecting thousands of patients, immediately.”

Contact Phaedra Haywood at 986-3068 or phaywood@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @phaedraann.

Clarification: A previous version of this story attributed a department timeline to departmental rules, but has been clarified to attribute state statute.