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Does New Mexico Have the Model Marijuana Program?

New Mexico has always been, to conjure the band Genesis, a land of confusion.
It has some of the hottest deserts in the nation, and great skiing. Even in the same

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New Mexico has always been, to conjure the band Genesis, a land of confusion.

It has some of the hottest deserts in the nation, and great skiing. Even in the same geographical location, temperatures can veer wildly from deathly hot in the daytime to cold enough to kill you from hypothermia at night. The politics are just as askew—regions to the west and north are predominantly blue, while in the southeastern quarter it’s as beet-red as west Texas.

Now, our neighbor to the east is simultaneously receiving praise from such liberal news outlets as The Huffington Post for having a medical-cannabis program that other states would do well to emulate, and inspiring wary concern among some experts for being overly restrictive.

Both views can’t be right. Or can’t they?

In a head-to-head battle between California and New Mexico over which state allows patients to possess the largest quantity of medical cannabis, the Golden State has the Land of Enchantment beat.

California presently has no limit set on the amount of marijuana a qualified patient can possess—the 8 ounces of dried pot/12-plant limit set by Senate Bill 420 was struck down by the state Supreme Court. New Mexico, by comparison, has a statewide maximum limit of 6 ounces of dried cannabis, four mature plants and 12 seedlings. And while New Mexico’s list of 16 approved medical conditions includes Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (making it the first and only among the 14 “legal” states), Cali docs have leeway to recommend cannabis for just about any condition they see fit.

But there just may be a method to this moderation.

“To gain passage, we had to make our program a very tightly controlled one, with many more restrictions than California’s approach,” says New Mexico state Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, the Albuquerque Democrat who sponsored the medical cannabis bill that was passed by the state legislature in March 2007.

In addition to quantity and covered conditions, these restrictions include the number of non-profit grow facilities and dispensaries the Health Department is willing to license.

That’s right—New Mexico’s program is the first in the nation to establish a state-regulated production and distribution system. New Mexico patients can apply for and receive a license to produce their own medical cannabis (and 564 have); however, official non-profit growers are allowed up to 95 mature plants at any one time, and may sell to any approved patient they like.

This is radically different than in California, where only the members of a closed collective can legally partake of the medicine they grow. Further, California’s program is vague about what, exactly, constitutes a legal collective and where and how operators can acquire their medicine. As a result, hundreds of storefront dispensaries have cropped up, with many providing medicine obtained on the black market. This has led to frustration for law enforcement and a fair amount of heartbreak for dispensary operators who can essentially be arrested at any time for not following the “rules.”

New Mexico, on the other hand, has had no trouble with law enforcement, according to state Health Department spokeswoman Deborah Busemeyer. Ortiz y Pino credits the state’s restrictions with keeping program abuses to a minimum and contributing to a “very high” level of public support.

Are the concessions in New Mexico’s program worth the cure? Cali cannabis advocates aren’t so sure.

According to Americans for Safe Access spokesperson Kris Hermes, while the medical cannabis advocacy group is “very much in favor” of New Mexico’s program for allowing both patient and nonprofit cultivation (unlike New Jersey and other states currently considering legislation that wouldn’t allow patients to grow), he notes that the Health Department’s rigorous licensing process has led to difficulties meeting patients’ needs.

“The Bush administration threatened New Mexico state officials with criminal prosecution if it implemented the planned distribution program, so it held off until President Obama was elected,” says Hermes.

Even then, he said, the state licensed only one facility, which quickly ran out of medicine. Four additional nonprofits were approved in November 2009, but they haven’t had enough time to develop their supply. Many advocates—including Hermes, CalNORML director Dale Gieringer, Berkeley Patients Group co-director Debby Goldsberry and Lori Singer, president of the U.C.L.A. chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy—doubt that all of New Mexico’s 1,539 patients are being adequately served.

Even Sen. Ortiz y Pino is concerned.

“I’d like to see a larger number of suppliers accredited by the Health Department so patients don’t have to go onto the streets to secure marijuana after they’ve been certified to participate,” he says. (For the record, Busemeyer asserts that the state is carefully developing its one-of-a-kind program and “will make changes as needed.”)

Regardless, Hermes isn’t sure that New Mexico’s state-regulated system is an apt model for California. “California has more than 300,000 patients, and is geographically large enough to make local distribution laws more practical,” he says.

For her part, Goldsberry worries that limiting cannabis supply and diversity will lead to problems in developing plant medicine: “We can’t expand our knowledge base effectively if it is only grown in small home gardens or by just a few licensed distributors producing limited strain types.”

Both Gieringer and Singer take issue with a limited list of covered conditions. “It’s extraordinary for a medicine to be illegal for certain purposes,” says Gieringer. “The FDA may approve a drug for particular uses; however, off-label prescribing is both common and perfectly legal.”