Two proposed changes to New Mexico medical marijuana rules could generate revenue for administering the state’s program, which was created in 2007 as an unfunded legislative mandate.
One proposal would increase the fee for applicants seeking certification as nonprofit producers of medical marijuana to $1,000 from $100. The other would require producers to pay the state an annual fee equal to 7 percent of their annual gross receipts.
Department of Health spokesperson Deborah Busemeyer said that at the program’s current size — 2,500 licensed patients and 11 certified producers — the annual cost of running the program is about $700,000 to $800,000. Because the program has no budget of its own, costs currently are covered by piecing together resources designated for other programs.
Also proposed are a variety of other tweaks to existing rules, including specifying the department’s authority to audit producers and test their product.
About 200 people showed up at a public hearing on the proposed regulations Thursday. Nearly 50 of them offered comments.
Some protested the addition of more “red tape” to the program, which some patients say is already difficult to navigate, and some worried that the fee increases would result in increased costs for patients.
Others praised the state for creating New Mexico’s program, the only one in the country that makes the health department responsible for setting up and regulating the distribution of medical cannabis.
Several asked why Health Secretary Alfredo Vigil wasn’t present at the hearing and questioned language in proposals to give him sole discretion over certain aspects of the program.
Vigil told The New Mexican on Thursday that the focus on those issues illustrates a lack of knowledge on the part of the public on how state government works.
He said state cabinet secretaries rarely attend rule-making hearings — relying on staff to conduct those hearings and report back to them. Vigil said he also avoids hearings because he feels the presence of “someone up the chain” can be disruptive.
“There is nothing unusual in how this works,” Vigil said, adding that as secretary of a department in the executive branch of government, he is always the one with sole discretion over Health Department programs.
“As far as I know, there are no areas where sole discretion is being created, only clarified,” Vigil said. “Whether those words are on the paper or not, I still am the only one with the ultimate discretion.”
Much of the testimony presented Thursday was aimed at aspects of the program not addressed by the rule changes.
Numerous patients expressed frustration concerning the amount of cannabis patients are allowed to possess. They said the limits — 6 ounces for those who buy from a producer, or four mature plants and a dozen seedlings for those who grow their own — make it difficult to grow enough outdoors during New Mexico’s short growing season to last the entire year. Growing inside, patients said, is expensive because of the cost of electricity.
Busemeyer said that concern will be considered by staff reviewing the proposed rule changes.
Another common complaint from those who testified concerned a requirement that patients renew their medical cannabis cards annually.
Busemeyer said that rule was created by the Legislature and would have to be addressed there.
Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, spoke in favor of the program during the hearing and, while stopping short of making any promises, said he would support additional funding for research on the medical use of marijuana.
McSorley also requested that the public comment period on the changes be extended. The hearing officer agreed to accept written comments on the proposed rules through Oct. 10. After that, program staff will draft a final version of the rules for Vigil’s approval. The new rules could take effect as soon as mid-November.