- Associated Press - Monday, June 16, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A proposed overhaul of the state’s medical marijuana program drew opposition Monday from patients and advocates who warned that new fees and other changes would make it harder for them to obtain the drug.

More than 200 people packed a hearing by the Health Department to comment on the revisions proposed by Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration. Others wanting to attend had to initially wait outside a state building because the auditorium for the hearing was full.

“If your intent is to kill the New Mexico medical cannabis program, these proposed … rules will do just that,” said Vivian Moore, the executive director of a marijuana producer in Las Cruces.

One proposal by the department would require patients or their primary caregivers to pay a yearly $50 fee. It would be lowered to $25 for Medicaid patients.

Currently, it’s free for individuals to enroll in the medical marijuana program, which was enacted in 2007.

The state also proposes to halve the number of plants patients can grow themselves.

Mike Pell, a retired Army sergeant from Rio Rancho who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, said in an interview that he grows his own marijuana because he can’t afford to spend $600 to $800 a month to buy it from a nonprofit producer.

Cutting the number of seedlings and mature plants allowed, from 16 to eight, would prevent him from having an adequate supply, he said.

“With the majority of these proposed rules, it’s going to price me totally out of the program and put me back on prescription medications that weren’t working,” said Pell.

Nonprofit producers, who supply most of the marijuana for the 11,000 New Mexico residents in the program, could triple their plants, but would have to pay higher fees.

Currently, a producer can grow 150 plants at a time and pay fees that vary according to how long they have been in business. The fees are $30,000 annually if they have been licensed for more than three years.

A producer would pay up to $90,000 a year to grow the maximum number of mature plants and seedlings under the proposed changes. The initial application fee for a producer would jump from $1,000 to $10,000.

The agency has said raising the plant limits for producers will help address supply problems patients have encountered. An extra dozen producers will also be licensed after the rules change, according to the department. There are currently 23 licensed marijuana producers.

The fee increases are to help pay for the department’s costs of administering the program.

Opponents said the proposed regulations will increase costs for producers and individuals, limiting access to marijuana.

“These proposed changes will send nearly every patient back to the black market … back to the pharmaceuticals, back to using cannabis illegally,” Moore said.

The state has issued about 3,500 licenses to patients to produce their own marijuana. The department proposes to require annual criminal background checks, and individuals must pay the costs.

“I am not a criminal,” objected William Hunter of Los Alamos, who grows some of his own marijuana.

The state also proposes new standards for testing marijuana to ensure it’s free of pesticides and other contaminants, but producers said the requirements aren’t workable.

Health Secretary Retta Ward will make the final decision on new rules, but there’s no deadline.


Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP

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