By Algernon D'Ammassa / Deming Headlight
Published on August 31, 2017
A proposed medical marijuana dispensary in downtown Deming remains empty almost one year after the City Council approved a special use permit for New Mexico Top Organics-Ultra Health to open here. The storefront is located at 117 E. Spruce.
With the opening of a new location in Alamogordo on Tuesday, however, the Bernalillo-based provider tells the Headlight they are confident Deming will soon follow.
“In my opinion,” said Ultra Health spokeswoman Marissa Novel, “allowing us to open Alamogordo is a reflection of [the Department of Health’s] willingness to recognize a Licensed Non-Profit Producer's right to produce, possess, dispense, and distribute cannabis…without arbitrary limitations.”
The New Mexico Department of Health limits licensed providers to a total of 450 plants, and has blocked Ultra from opening more locations, arguing that it cannot it stock more dispensaries and legally comply with the plant count. Meanwhile, by July of 2017, the number of authorized patients in the Medical Cannabis program has increased by 42 percent to more than 45,000 individuals.
An amendment that would have allowed Ultra Health to open the Deming location was denied late last year. For 207 Luna County patients enrolled in New Mexico’s medical cannabis program, the nearest dispensaries are in Las Cruces, a trip that requires passing through a border patrol checkpoint where federal laws forbidding possession of marijuana for any purpose are in force.
Members of the Deming City Council voted to approveBuy Photo
Members of the Deming City Council voted to approve a special-use permit for Ultra Health's medical marijuana dispensary downtown in September 2016. (Photo: Bill Armendariz - Headlight Photo)
In a civil lawsuit heard in Santa Fe earlier this month, Ultra Health argued the plant count limit is arbitrary and prevents licensed providers from serving the growing number of New Mexico cannabis patients. Ultra Health CEO Duke Rodriguez, reached by phone on Monday, said he was confident of a favorable ruling. “This case is going to become probably the single-biggest decision since the beginning of the program,” he said.
The Department of Health would not comment on the pending litigation, but in a written statement for the Headlight DOH spokesman David Morgan said, “Our job is to assure that there is enough medicine available for patients. Ultra Health continues to request approval for opening still more locations while admitting publicly that it can’t sustain them.” Rodriguez argues that Ultra would be able to stock locations through wholesale purchases.
For patients, blocked access
While Ultra Health seeks to expand its share of a lucrative and growing market in more parts of the state, for Luna County patients, as in other rural parts of the state, the issue is access to legally prescribed medicine.
“Having a local, licensed dispensary in Deming would be the difference between having a card but no care,” said Deming resident Jennie Kirchen, a cancer patient struggling to pay for treatment while also seeking employment. She travels to Las Cruces for her medication and says that while the border patrol hasn’t stopped her yet, she is aware during every trip that “they are federal agents and have the legal right to inspect and confiscate my medication if they believe I am transporting an illegal federal substance.”
On Kirchen’s budget, the medication is hard to afford. In Las Cruces, she pays between $20 and $40 for one gram of concentrated product. She said she may apply for a permit to grow her own, although that comes with its own restrictions and challenges.
Novel attributes high prices to the plant count, which she said allows less than 1/3 of a plant for each patient enrolled in the program. “Because the plant count is so restrictive, many providers cannot ramp up to economies of scale which would reduce costs for patients,” said Novel. Rodriguez added that DOH regulations prevent volume discounts that would save patients money.
William Wiggins of Deming enrolled in the state medical cannabis program for treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and says the difficulty and expense of obtaining his medicine has exacerbated his anxiety. “It’s scary at times going through the checkpoint,” he said, although he has not had his medicine confiscated either. Wiggins estimates his costs for a round trip to Las Cruces at about $25 on top of his medication. He adds, “Because of the lack of product in southern New Mexico, the prices get jacked.” Some dispensaries will deliver, but they add a service charge. He said a Deming dispensary would be “a game-changer” for himself and other patients in town.
When the city approved Ultra’s special-use permit last year, Rodriguez said the company anticipated $600,000 to $1 million in revenue in the first year, and on Monday he told the Headlight the number of patients from Luna County would likely increase if medical cannabis could be purchased in Deming.
Novel said that Ultra Health has resubmitted an amendment that would permit the Deming location to open. “We believe once we hear word from NMDOH about an inspection date we can have the location operational within 30 days of the inspection date…Driving all the way to Grant County for an alternative medicinal option is unfair, and we plan to establish increased access and patient choice across the entire state of New Mexico.”