The amount of medical cannabis that licensed producers in New Mexico are allowed to grow would more than double under a bill filed in the state Senate, and patients in the state program would be permitted to possess more marijuana.
“The bill will help guarantee that there is an adequate supply of marijuana for our patients,” state Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said of his Senate Bill 8.
McSorley, who in 2007 helped get a bill passed to authorize the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, said the new bill also would “cut some of the red tape” for patients enrolling in the program and renewing their registrations. It would set into law a requirement that the state Health Department issue ID cards to patients within 30 days, and would extend the term of an ID card to three years for a patient with a chronic, debilitating condition. Under current law, all medical marijuana ID cards expire in one year.
The Health Department has faced criticism and even legal challenges in the past year over the Medical Cannabis Program’s producer limits, as well as long delays in processing patient applications.
Officials said in November that the program had grown by 76 percent in a year’s time, to nearly 33,000 patients from 18,600, and the huge influx had created a backlog in approving applications. The large patient volume also has strained supplies. The department has taken steps to address the issues, but McSorley’s bill would lead to more sweeping program changes.
The bill would allow licensed producers to grow up to 1,000 cannabis plants during any three-month period. Under current state regulations, a producer can have 450 plants — which a Health Department spokesman said is three times more than what was allowed less than a year ago.
McSorley said his bill would also decrease the cost of growing marijuana. While producers now have to pay $90,000 to grow 450 plants, under his bill, the license fee for 1,000 plants would be capped at $90,000.
As for patients, McSorley’s bill would allow individuals in the program to possess up to 5 ounces of marijuana during a 30-day period. Currently, patients are allowed to possess 8 ounces during a 90-day period.
If the bill is signed into law, the state would not be able to limit the concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol — or THC — in a cannabis-derived product owned by a qualified patient or a primary caregiver in the program. The chemical THC is the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
It’s unclear whether Gov. Susana Martinez would sign the bill.
Asked about that, Martinez spokesman Michael Lonergan referred the question to Health Department spokesman Paul Rhien, who said Thursday, “While we haven’t had a chance to review the legislation, the Department of Health is always committed to reviewing the overall operation of the state’s Medical Cannabis Program. The primary goal of the program is to ensure patients have safe access to medicine.”
In addition to increasing the amounts of cannabis allowed for producers and patients in the past year, Rhien said, the program added 12 new licensed producers in 2016, and they are in the process of becoming operational.
In a legislative hearing in August, lawmakers and members of the public blasted the Health Department for taking too long to issue medical cannabis cards to patients or to renew their cards.
Without the ID cards, patients can’t buy marijuana from state-licensed dispensaries. Several who testified in August said many patients had to go without the treatment or had to buy it from illegal sellers, exposing themselves to possible arrest and purchasing drugs that weren’t tested or targeted toward their specific illness.
In response to complaints about the delays, the Health Department extended the term of identification cards that were set to expire between June 15 and Dec. 31, 2016, keeping them active for an additional 60 days.
Rhien said the Health Department “has identified and implemented several positive changes to address the application backlog, which have strengthened our ability to serve medical cannabis patients. For example, [the Medical Cannabis Program] has added additional staff to process card applications and streamlined the approval process for patients. This has reduced the time for approval and issuance of patient cards to less than 30 days.”
According to the program’s website, the average wait time in November for receiving the cards, for both new applicants and those renewing their cards, was 24 days.
Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell @sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at www.santafenewmexican.com/news/blogs/politics.