Medical-Marijuana Rules Go Under The Microscope

September 10, 2008

New Mexico — R.C. didn’t ask the father-son burglary team to rush into his home and shoot him four times, leaving him a paraplegic with painful leg spasms. He didn’t ask for the post-traumatic stress disorder that came after that painful night. And right now, he isn’t asking for sympathy.

What he wants is access to the state-approved medication, marijuana, that lets him continue to function in society. And he doesn’t want to go to an underground dealer or have his children exposed to that drug.

R.C. was one of about 85 people who attended a public meeting about medical cannabis held Monday by the Department of Health.

The department has been trying to handle the knotty issue of creating a medical-marijuana program and distribution system, as mandated by the Legislature, without running afoul of federal drug laws that prohibit its use.

But it hasn’t been easy, said Deborah Busemeyer, a department spokeswoman.

“It’s a very complicated program,” Busemeyer said. “We consider this a medicine that will provide relief to people. But it comes down to balancing access for patient needs with public safety.”

Still, R.C., who asked to only be identified by his initials for fear of federal retaliation, wants to know when and how the state will live up to its obligations to him.

“There are not always ways for people in my situation to become a grower,” said R.C., who has been confined to a wheelchair for the past three years. “And I don’t want my children exposed to this medication,” either when he smokes it or by finding it in the backyard.

R.C. also said he found it odd that he can easily get legal access to OxyContin, a highly addictive narcotic painkiller, but not to marijuana, which works better for his pain, his spasms and his PTSD, he said.

R.C. relived his home-invasion trauma once again by telling his story to a reporter.

“The last thing I remember is, as I was lying face down, the dad telling the boy, ‘Finish him, son,’ ” R.C. said.

Others that came to the Monday meeting — including growers, attorneys, supporters, cancer patients and AIDS sufferers — also spoke about difficulties with proposed rules for handling marijuana.

Under the temporary provisions that the medical cannabis program operates by, patients can grow four mature plants and 12 seedlings at any given time. And they can have up to 6 ounces of marijuana in their possession.

“This definition of adequate supply will not be enough for many patients,” said Reena Szczepanski, director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, adding that many patients use a quarter-ounce a day.

To fix that, she said doctors should be able to prescribe a larger supply to some patients, with state approval.

Another big problem is the risk to distributors. The department’s proposal says that producers must set up a nonprofit that can grow no more than 95 plants and seedlings.

But the process of building a nonprofit creates a problem in itself, said a man who identified himself as a Taos attorney.

“The first thing you do after filing a copy of your nonprofit paperwork with the state is to file a copy with the feds,” he said, adding that such paperwork would be an invitation for the federal government to prosecute.

Beyond nonprofits and patients growing their own supply, Szczepanski’s group would also like to see a permit for caregivers to grow medical marijuana, she said.

“That would add a third class for licenses,” Szczepanski said.

Another one of the Department of Health’s proposed changes would force patients to apply for a separate license to grow marijuana, even after they’re medically approved to use the drug, which the Drug Policy Alliance also opposes, Szczepanski said.

“Until these nonprofit agencies are formed, patients need other access,” Szczepanski said.

And perhaps the scariest proposed rule is that the department would have the right to enter and inspect any medical marijuana patient’s home with no prior notification, she said.

“This monitoring section goes too far,” she said.

Busemeyer pointed out that the proposal is actually less invasive than it once was, noting that the inspections would only occur “during business hours,” she said.

“Compromises are important,” Busemeyer said.

But another speaker pointed out that the state doesn’t inspect the homes of people who have prescriptions for more dangerous drugs, such as morphine or OxyContin.

Overall, it seems like the state government — at least the small army of lawyers between the Legislature, which mandated the law, and the department, which is trying to make it work — doesn’t really understand much about the drug at all, said Sage Davis, an Albuquerque resident who spoke at the meeting.

“The department needs to contact a botanist,” Davis said, noting that plant size is not a good way to define patient supply. “You need to get some lay people involved in your organization that understand how this plant works.”

And the lawyers?

“If they can’t figure this out, then get rid of them,” Davis said.

The department hasn’t yet decided if it will have another public meeting after receiving Monday’s input, but Busemeyer said she was impressed at the turnout.

“In general I think it was great that this was so well-attended — it’s our best attended so far, and we appreciate getting the feedback,” Busemeyer said. “We agree the patients should have access.”

Note: Patients, supporters criticize distribution system at public meeting.

Source: Santa Fe New Mexican

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