Cannabis enrollment up in Luna County and New Mexico

The Deming Headlight / Algernon D'Ammassa
Published on January 8, 2017

DEMING – New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis program continues to grow even as the U.S. Department of Justice signaled, on January 4, that it might be cracking down on marijuana use.

On Thursday, the DOJ announced it would rescind a 2013 policy granting federal prosecutors discretion to focus on other priorities in states that have legalized marijuana for medicinal or recreational purposes. Medical use of marijuana has been legal in New Mexico since 2007.

Among the most common conditions treated with marijuana are Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, cancer, and severe chronic pain associated with arthritis, peripheral neuropathy, and other causes.

Per data from the New Mexico Department of Health, the number of patients enrolled in the Medical Cannabis program reached 46,645 at the end of 2017, an increase of 61 percent over the calendar year. There were 256 patients from Luna County, while neighboring Doña Ana and Grant counties have seen more than 80 percent growth in the number of card-holding cannabis patients.

Despite rapid patient growth around the state, 60 percent of New Mexico’s 68 dispensaries are located in Bernalillo, Santa Fe, and Sandoval counties. Ultra Health was granted a special use permit by the Deming City Council in 2016 to operate a dispensary in downtown Deming, but 2018 arrived with the storefront still awaiting approval by the Department of Health.

That approval was refused at the end of 2016, with the Department of Health citing regulations that restrict the number of marijuana plants that may be cultivated by providers. Ultra Health has since resubmitted an amendment to its agreement with the state that allow them to open for business on Spruce Street. It has also sued DOH in district court, calling the plant count “arbitrary and capricious.” The dispensary said a ruling on that suit is expected on January 9.

Ultra Health Spokeswoman Marissa Novel told the Headlight on Friday that the company remains committed to opening their Deming dispensary “regardless of the plant count ruling.” She called the January 4 announcement by the U.S. Department of Justice “troubling,” saying, “In the absence of federal laws that could and should be passed to resolve this industry’s legitimacy, nothing is guaranteed.”

For now, she said Ultra Health’s response to the DOJ action was, “Business as usual.”

Curry nearly doubles medical marijuana enrollees

The Eastern New Mexico News / Jamie Cushman
Published on January 9, 2017

CLOVIS — The medical marijuana market — both locally and across the state — is far from going up in smoke.

According to the New Mexico Department of Health's data, in 2017 Curry county experienced the second-highest growth rate of medical marijuana cardholders out of the 21 counties in the state that began the year with at least 200 cardholders.

Curry nearly doubled its enrollees in the state's medical cannabis program, increasing from 452 to 891 cardholders.

Part of that growth can be attributed to the opening of a new dispensary, Ultra Health, which began serving Clovis customers in January 2017.

Ultra Health Communications Manager Marissa Novel said that when a community adds a new dispensary, more people learn about the state's medical cannabis program and become cardholders.

"We truly feel that patient enrollment tends to rapidly increase after access increases," Novel said.

Mario Gonzales Sr., the co-founder of Curry county's other dispensary, Budding Hope, pointed to several reasons why he has seen the number of cardholders grow since the Clovis location first opened in 2014, including increased medical marijuana awareness and previously unmet needs in rural areas.

"The primary reason is because people are learning about (medical marijuana) and there has been some additional qualifying conditions," Gonzales Sr. said. "The reason you see additional cardholders in Clovis is because Clovis is a rural area and the servicing of rural areas has been more laxed."

Roosevelt county also boasted a considerable influx of new cardholders in 2017, more than doubling its numbers from 132 to 268.

Novel said Ultra Health's opening may be a cause of the growth in Roosevelt county as well.

She said a new location opening can bring in customers from outside the county, which would makes sense in this case given the proximity between Clovis and Portales.

"We've seen as access increases in one county, patients will drive to the next county to receive their medication," Novel said.

New Mexicans have also shown a willingness to grow their own medical marijuana.

According to a press release from Ultra Health, 14 percent of New Mexico medical marijuana patients are registered to grow their own medicine, compared to just 1 percent across the border in Arizona.

Gonzales Sr. said Budding Hope tries to help patients interested in growing their own marijuana by providing any supplies they need including lighting and seeds.

He said although homegrown cannabis is more affordable than what patients will find in a dispensary, it does not come without its disadvantages.

"It gets expensive if they are growing indoors, it gets very risky if you are growing outdoors, but if you're in the right location, it's a good way, we encourage people to try growing their own cannabis," Gonzales Sr. said.

Overall enrollment in New Mexico's medical cannabis program increased 61 percent in 2017, growing from 29,046 to 46,645 cardholders.

Of the 33 counties in New Mexico, now Curry ranks 14th and Roosevelt ranks 23rd in number of cardholders. According to 2014 estimates, Curry ranks 12th and Roosevelt ranks 20th in population.

New Mexico became the 12th state to legalize medical marijuana in 2007.

State’s medical pot program looks to be safe

Journal Washington Bureau / Michael Coleman

Published on January 6, 2017

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Justice Department’s decision last week to clamp down on legal marijuana use is unlikely to cause trouble for those involved in New Mexico’s medical marijuana industry, according to experts.
Meanwhile, all four Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation said they support keeping marijuana lawful for medicinal purposes.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday rescinded an Obama-era policy that kept federal authorities from cracking down on the pot trade in states where the drug is legal. The Justice Department will now leave it up to federal prosecutors to decide what to do when state rules clash with federal drug law.

“It is the mission of the Department of Justice to enforce the laws of the United States,” Sessions said in a statement.

But experts told the Journal on Friday that the decision appeared to be aimed more at the eight states that have moved to legalize recreational marijuana and not those, such as New Mexico, that have legalized marijuana only for medical purposes.

Current federal law prohibits the U.S. government from using tax dollars to interfere with medical marijuana programs in states such as New Mexico that have legalized it.

But that provision, which was sponsored by Republican California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher and approved in 2014, expires Jan. 19, along with legislation to fund the government.

The law protecting medical marijuana in the states will become void unless Congress renews it as part of a new spending bill. It’s not certain that will happen, but several Capitol Hill sources told the Journal on Friday that the medical marijuana issue is unlikely to trigger a fight in the upcoming showdown over keeping the government operating.

A Justice Department spokesman told the Journal on Friday that the department won’t interfere with medical marijuana operations as long as Congress keeps it lawful.

“The Justice Department will not violate any federal laws in order to pursue marijuana related prosecutions, including in the context of the Rohrabacher amendment (medical marijuana),” the Justice Department spokesman said in an email.

Unlike with medical marijuana, Congress has not passed a law protecting recreational marijuana.

Last week, Sessions rescinded the Cole Memorandum, a 2013 directive from the Obama administration stipulating that the Justice Department place a “low priority” on enforcing marijuana laws against businesses and organizations that comply with state law.

The memo stipulates that the federal government would not stand in the way of states that legalize marijuana, so long as officials acted to keep it from migrating to places where it remained outlawed, and out of the hands of criminal gangs and children.

New Mexico launched its medical marijuana program in 2007 – the law is officially called the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act – and the number of people enrolled in the program has skyrocketed in recent years. There were 46,645 active patients around the state as of last month, up from 9,950 in September 2013, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.

Marissa Novel, a spokeswoman for Ultra Health, a leading medical marijuana dispenser in New Mexico, said Friday that her company is not overly concerned by the Justice Department action because providers are protected under state law.

“We don’t see that there is a whole lot to worry about,” she said. “We abide by the state law. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ actions are troubling, indeed, and the reality remains that in the absence of federal laws that could and should be passed to resolve this industry’s legitimacy, nothing is really guaranteed.”

Morgan Fox, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, told the Journal on Friday that federal prosecutors are unlikely to target medical marijuana.

“I don’t think that will happen, at least not for medical (marijuana), and particularly not for patients because state and local law enforcement aren’t going to do the job and the feds don’t have the resources to start going after patients,” Fox said. “It’s also a PR nightmare” for the Justice Department, he said.

A Pew poll released Friday showed that 61 percent of Americans believe marijuana use should be legal for both recreational and medicinal purposes. That number mirrored a 2016 Journal poll, which found 61 percent of New Mexicans also thought the drug should be legalized.

Fox predicted the Justice Department’s move to crack down on the legal pot industry could backfire on Sessions, a longtime drug warrior who has characterized marijuana as being as “only slightly less awful” than heroin.

After Sessions’ announcement Thursday, some Republicans who champion states’ rights – most notably Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado – harshly criticized the policy shift.

“What this could result in is Congress taking a renewed interest in passing really comprehensive legislation that would allow states to determine their own marijuana polices without federal interference,” Fox said.

All four Democrats in New Mexico’s congressional delegation said Friday that they support states’ rights to legalize medical marijuana. A spokeswoman for Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat running for governor of New Mexico, said the congresswoman “supports the inclusion of the (Rohrabacher) amendment into any new spending bill and is supportive of the (medical marijuana) industry.”

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., supports “states’ rights on these issues,” his spokeswoman told the Journal on Friday.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján and Sen. Martin Heinrich, both New Mexico Democrats, said they have both voted to prohibit federal crackdowns on medical marijuana and supported allowing Veteran Affairs providers in states where medical marijuana is legal to recommend the plant as a potential treatment.

“I’ve looked closely at this position and met with cancer patients who told me how medical marijuana helped them cope with the pain and allowed them to eat,” Luján said.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Steve Pearce, the delegation’s only Republican and also a candidate for governor, said: “The congressman has heard many stories of the positive value for some patients in medically prescribed marijuana – often called medical marijuana. It is the job of Congress to fund the government, and tacking on legislation like this (the Rohrabacher amendment) to make or break an important spending bill is a complicating factor.”

Sessions Marijuana Legislation in New Mexico

MyHighPlains.com /  Audrey Roberson

Published on January 5, 2017

Dispensaries Not Expecting Federal Scrutiny

CLOVIS - Attorney General, Jeff Sessions decided to rescind a marijuana enforcement policy from the Obama administration. Federal prosecutors will have the go-ahead to enforce these federal laws.

This changes the hands-off approach the federal government has had toward marijuana laws. Now prosecutors could target legal growers or dispensaries.

With the 2013 Cole Memo, states could decide whether or not to legalize medicinal and recreational marijuana.

New Mexico is one of 29 states to legalize medicinal marijuana.

Anna Mitchell of Ultra Health in Clovis, said they are not worried about of the new legislation because their patients are protected under the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act.

This was passed to ensure patients who needed the medicine still had access.

"The awareness of the effectiveness of this medicine is spreading," Mitchell said. "It's important. I don't think it's going to go anywhere. It's too big to go anywhere. There are too many people who need it, who use it, who believe in it. I don't think any of the medical programs are under any fire."

Medical marijuana is used to treat cancerous tumors, ALS, epilepsy, and opioid addiction.

Manager of Ultra Health in Clovis, Anthony Salez said there has been a 77% increase of Cannabis registration in New Mexico within the past year. He said the increase is because of the opioid crisis.

According to state law, patients must have a medicinal card and be a New Mexico resident in order to purchase in a dispensary.

Medical pot enrollment jumps 77 percent

Rick Nathanson / The Albuquerque Journal
Published on December 16, 2017

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The medical cannabis industry in New Mexico grew by about 77 percent from November 2016 through November 2017, an indication that the industry is strong and expanding, according to updated numbers released earlier this week.

The New Mexico Department of Health’s Medical Cannabis Program Patient Statistics report shows there were 45,374 active patients in the program at the end of November 2017, an increase of more than 19,600 over November 2016, when there were 25,697 patients in the program. Continue reading "Medical pot enrollment jumps 77 percent"

NM medical marijuana enrollment sees record 77 percent increase

The Las Cruces Sun-News
Published on December 11, 2017

LAS CRUCES - Patient enrollment in New Mexico’s medical cannabis program reached 45,347 as of Nov. 30, a 77 percent increase and a 19,650 net patient gain over the same period last year. On an annual basis, this is the highest percentage gain and the greatest net patient increase since the inception of the program in 2007.

At the same time, the program’s patient count has also experienced ongoing enrollment adjustments by New Mexico Department of Health officials, which has been attributed by the NMDOH to “legacy data” being removed from the database, according to a news release from the New Mexico medical cannabis dispensary Ultra Health. The department has disenrolled thousands of patients from September 2017 to October 2017 for the third consecutive year, according to the dispensary chain.

Based on documents obtained through an Inspection of Public Records Act request, it is believed more patient data was removed than indicated by the net month-to-month differences. Written communication between NMDOH and the vendor responsible for program data confirm ongoing reporting concerns.

“The challenge we run into, as we have stated several times, is these reports keep having staggering changes in numbers,” Andrea Sundberg, NMDOH Patient Services Manager, said in an email obtained by an IPRA. “Last year we had a change of 5,000 active enrollees in a one month period that nobody could ever explain. Then last month (September 2017) we ran the report and the numbers by county and condition were different than the active count by over 7,000,” Sundberg continued. “These type of issues two years into the system are not appropriate and only lead to greater confusion about our valid data.”

Despite the frequent restatement of data by the NMDOH, the rapidly expanding Medical Cannabis Program continues to exceed projections and show significant year-over-year growth. The program remains on track to reach near 50,000 patients by Dec. 31.

City won’t let pot grower advertise on buses

By Olivier Uyttebrouck / The Albuquerque Journal
Published on September 28, 2017
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A New Mexico medical cannabis grower who wants to advertise on Albuquerque buses was turned down by city officials, who say the ads would violate federal laws and put the city at risk of losing transit funding.

Duke Rodriguez, owner of Ultra Health LLC, had planned to buy an ad on the outside of ABQ Ride buses advertising the firm’s three Albuquerque dispensaries. Ultra Health had planned to spend up to $25,000 a year on the ads, he said.

Bruce Rizzieri, director of the city’s transit department, cited federal drug laws in a Sept. 13 letter to Rodriguez rejecting Ultra Health’s request.

Rizzieri said that “even if the medical cannabis program is allowed under state law, advertising of Schedule 1 substances is still prohibited by federal law.”

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration lists marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance.

Albuquerque and other agencies that receive Federal Transit Administration grants are prohibited from advertising a substance that remains illegal under federal law, Rizzieri wrote.

Rizzieri said Ultra Health’s proposed ad would violate the city’s policy, which prohibits advertising that “relates to an illegal or unlawful activity.”

City officials confirmed Rizzieri wrote the letter but did not offer additional comment Wednesday.

Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis sent a letter this week to the Federal Transit Administration expressing support for Ultra Health’s request and asking federal officials to approve the ads.

“I believe that distributing medical cannabis pursuant to a state law does not constitute illegally distributing a controlled substance,” Davis wrote in a letter dated Tuesday.

Rodriguez said he doubts the federal agency will approve his request to advertise on city buses, in which case Ultra Health would consider filing a federal lawsuit alleging the city violated the firm’s constitutional rights.

“If the answer remains unclear, then we have to go into the realm of whether this is a freedom of speech issue that needs to be adjudicated by the court,” Rodriguez said.

Citing concerns about federal law, Albuquerque rejects medical marijuana bus ads

By Steve Terrell / The Santa Fe New Mexican
Published on September 27, 2017

Ultra Health, a medical marijuana provider licensed by the state of New Mexico, wanted to advertise on the outside of city buses in Albuquerque. The proposed wraparound ads featured large color photos of people of various ethnic groups and ages and a slogan, “Your Health. Our Commitment.”

But even though the sale and use of marijuana for medical purposes has been legal under state law for a decade, and the city of Albuquerque’s bus advertising policy does not specifically prohibit medical cannabis ads, the city’s Transit Department rejected the ads, citing concerns about federal law and restrictions on federal grant funding.

“The City Legal department has concluded that any advertisement displayed by the Transit Department for any sale or distribution related to medical cannabis, including THC or CDB, is prohibited by federal law, despite the state of New Mexico’s medical cannabis laws and regulations which provide limited license for distribution and patient use,” said Bruce Rizzieri, director of Albuquerque’s Transit Division, in a Sept. 13 letter to Ultra Health’s president and CEO Duke Rodriguez, who was state Human Services Department secretary under Gov. Gary Johnson.

Rizzieri added that recipients of federal transportation grants are prohibited from advertising marijuana.

The issue highlights the conflict between federal law and less restrictive state statutes and policies concerning the production and sale of cannabis, which a growing number of states have legalized even for recreational use.

A spokeswoman for Ultra Health said the design of the bus ads purposely avoided advertising the company’s products as recreational drugs.

“It’s a health care-centric design,” said Marissa Novel in an interview Wednesday. “If we took off our logo and used the name of another health care provider, like Lovelace, I’m sure the city wouldn’t have rejected it.”

Rizzieri said the city would be willing to write to the Federal Transit Administration requesting its position on medical marijuana advertising. One Albuquerque city councilor who disagrees with the city’s rejection of the ad proposal took it upon himself to do just that.

Councilor Pat Davis — who is seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for a congressional seat — sent a letter this week to the agency’s chief counsel, Dana Nifosi, as well as to Acting U.S. Attorney James Tierney asking for guidance. “I do not see that advertising medical cannabis (that is offered for sale pursuant to a state law) is prohibited,” Davis wrote.

Albuquerque’s bus advertising policy prohibits ads related to “an illegal or unlawful activity” or alcohol or tobacco products. But none of the policy’s restrictions deal with medical cannabis.

Referring to a federal law that Rizzieri had cited, Davis wrote, “Please note that this section of law prohibits advertising that seeks to illegally distribute a controlled substance. I believe that distributing medical cannabis pursuant to a state law does not constitute illegally distributing a controlled substance.”

Davis also argued that an amendment added by Congress to the federal government’s appropriations bills specifically forbids the U.S. Justice Department from taking actions against people and companies participating in medical cannabis programs licensed by the states. However, that protection is set to expire in December.

Ultra Health has eight dispensaries in New Mexico, including one in Santa Fe. Novel said the company has not tried to advertise with Santa Fe’s bus system but might consider it in the future.

It’s not clear what would happen if they did try it.

Don Templeton, president of Templeton Marketing Services in Albuquerque, which handles advertising on Santa Fe Trails buses, said Wednesday the city of Santa Fe does not have a specific policy related to medical marijuana advertising. “I’ve never been asked by any [dispensary],” he said. “If I did, I’d want to bounce it off the city first. Anything that might be controversial I’d always ask the city.”

Ads for marijuana have appeared on buses in California — where both medical and recreational marijuana are legal — without any federal repercussions.

But even though medical marijuana is legal in more than half of the states, other cities have been reluctant to allow advertising for it on their buses. The Boston Globe in March reported that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority “has an explicit policy prohibiting ads that promote ‘the sale, use, or cultivation of marijuana or marijuana-related products.’ ”

Medical pot producer claims it was barred from advertising on buses

KRQE News 13
Published on September 27, 2017

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – The city has barred a medical marijuana company from advertising on buses.

Ultra Health says its proposed bus wraps do not violate any laws and do not show any images of cannabis, but the company says ABQ Ride wouldn’t go for it and expressed concerns about losing federal funding since pot is still illegal on the federal level.

Ultra Health is of 35 medical cannabis providers in New Mexico.

Earlier this year, Ultra Health filed a lawsuit against Expo New Mexico, for refusing to allow a pot plant to be displayed at the State Fair.