AP NEWS

Bills would expand New Mexico’s medical cannabis program

March 18, 2019

Correction appended

More New Mexicans would qualify for medical marijuana, and the 70,000-plus patients already in the state’s medical cannabis program would have to deal with less paperwork under legislation approved by the state Legislature and sent to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

On Friday, the House passed Senate Bill 406, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, which would add more qualifying conditions for medical marijuana use and would allow patients in the program to renew their medical cannabis registry identification cards every three years instead of every year as now required. The Senate passed the bill the previous week.

Also last week, the House passed SB 404, sponsored by Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, which also would make medical cannabis cards good for three years. The Senate passed the bill in early March.

“I was just trying to save patients all the the trouble of restarting the process of applying every year,” O’Neill said, “A lot of these patients have chronic conditions, and restarting the process every year is time consuming and expensive.”

In its original form Ortiz y Pino’s bill included several new qualifying conditions including substance use disorder, autism spectrum disorder and neurodegenerative dementia. However, these were stripped from the bill during the committee process. Jessica Gelay of the Drug Policy Alliance, which lobbied for the bill, said Sunday she’s hopeful that these and other conditions will be added to by the Health Department later this year.

The bill would set into statute 15 medical conditions approved by the Department of Heath in recent years.

Currently, the most common conditions for those in the medical marijuana program include post-traumatic stress disorder and severe chronic pain.

Also, under Ortiz y Pino’s bill, being a medical marijuana patient would not be a disqualifying condition for an organ transplant. And being a registered patient by itself would not be grounds for intervention in suspected child abuse or neglect cases.

Medical marijuana patients have long complained about having to apply every year. And for years, advocates have pushed to add more qualifying conditions to the program.

In 2017, the Legislature passed a bill sponsored by then-House Republican leader Nate Gentry of Albuquerque that was similar to Ortiz y Pino’s bill this year. But that measure was vetoed by Gov. Susana Martinez, also a Republican. She left office Dec. 31.

Under the existing regulations, to renew a medical marijuana card, the patient and the doctor each year must fill out paper forms to submit to the state Health Department. Patients must include a photocopy of their driver’s license or state identification card, while doctors must include clinical notes about the applicant’s diagnosis.

Even though the bills approved by the Legislature call for three-year cards, patients would be required to see a doctor every year. The doctor would have to submit a verification to the Department of Health that the patient still suffers from a condition that qualifies for the program.

Ortiz y Pino’s bill would allow the doctor’s visit to be an online consultation.

An analysis of O’Neill’s bill, compiled by the Legislative Finance Committee, says patients could have trouble understanding the change.

“Many of the people enrolled in the [Medical Cannabis Program] are dealing with multiple issues, and they may get confused by the fact that they have a card that states it is valid for three years, but they then potentially have their card suspended for failure to provide documentation annually” from a doctor.

Under both of the bills, patients under the age of 18 still would have to apply once a year to stay in the program.

Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Lujan Grisham, said the medical cannabis legislation will be reviewed. He added the governor “certainly appreciates the importance of the medical cannabis program and recognizes there’s room to improve it.”

Lujan Grisham was secretary of the Health Department when the program was implemented and generally is considered a champion of medical marijuana.

Officials with the department’s medical cannabis program had expressed concerns about a three-year card, according to the analysis prepared by legislative staff.

The officials told staff, “It is both best practice, and in the patient’s best interest, for physicians and other medical providers to have an opportunity to take an interval history from the patient and perform a physical exam to guide their assessment of the patient’s ongoing medical conditions, to review symptom management, and to guide their ongoing medical therapy.”

Correction: This story has been amended to reflect the following correction. A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that several medical conditions that qualify patients for the Medical Cannabis Program were part of Senate Bill 406. Actually those conditions were stripped out out of the bill during the committee process.