- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 19, 2017

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - An audit by independent investigators with the U.S. Justice Department has determined a New Mexico program that helps crime victims allowed federal grant funds to be used to reimburse the purchase of medical marijuana by crime victims.

The review released this week by the agency’s inspector general identified $7,630 in questionable costs for four marijuana purchases.

While medical marijuana is legal in New Mexico, officials said it is banned under federal law and grants awarded to the New Mexico Crime Victims Reparation Commission cannot be used to pay for it.

Auditors have conducted similar reviews of programs in other states, and federal officials say it appears to be the first time the grants were misused to buy medical marijuana.

The commission’s director, Frank Zubia, said Wednesday that the spending for medical marijuana was unintentional and that the commission reimbursed the federal government for the purchases.

“Our staff is passionate and conscientiously committed to serving victims and look forward to maintaining a good relationship with both the state and the federal government to ensure victims’ needs are met,” he said.

While the federal government has mostly maintained a hands-off policy toward state marijuana laws in the past, the current U.S. administration has given mixed signals.

President Donald Trump has suggested marijuana policies should be left to the states, but U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been skeptical of marijuana’s medical value.

New Mexico’s commission has received more than $21 million in grants in recent years to help victims of violent crime with expenses incurred as a result of their victimization - ranging from compensation for funeral or medical expenses to payment of therapy and shelter.

The commission has used about $11 million of its federal grant funding, and auditors say New Mexico officials have generally enhanced services for victims through their use and management of the funds.

In response to a recommendation from the inspector general’s office, the commission has changed its policies to ensure that reimbursements for medical marijuana are covered by state funding.

The national Crime Victims Fund, which provides money for the grants, relies entirely on fines, penalties and forfeited bonds collected by the federal government. In recent years, the amount of funding distributed from the fund has increased to meet growing needs.

In New Mexico, the commission’s data shows much of the focus has been on providing services for victims of domestic and sexual violence.

Last year, the office received more than 2,600 applications for compensation and awarded over $2 million to victims across the state.

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Follow Susan Montoya Bryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM

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