Alibi V.23 No.38 • Sept 18-24, 2014 

Feature

A Dummies’ Guide to MMJ

Understanding New Mexico’s medical cannabis law

Various forms of medical cannabis.
Various forms of medical cannabis.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com
Medical marijuana has become a part of Albuquerque’s landscape. It exists, like alcohol after Prohibition, as something that was here the whole time but has now become an accepted part of our day-to-day reality. Just look at the ads in the back of this paper, even in issues not devoted to cannabis. There are businesses now selling medical marijuana. And it’s legal. Holy shit.

But, really, how does it all work? Sure, we all know that you can get a medical marijuana card for certain conditions, but what are they? Does ADHD count? Anxiety? And once you get it, where do you acquire your prescription medication? And are there consequences for entering into the program?

“We don’t ‘sell marijuana,’ we provide medicine,” says Ford.

We spoke with William Ford, president and executive director of R. Greenleaf, New Mexico’s largest medical cannabis distributor, to get answers to these questions.

Which conditions qualify?

“We don’t ‘sell marijuana,’ we provide medicine,” says Ford. “The spirit of the program is to serve the patients. ... We are the stewards of responsible use of cannabis for symptomatic relief. ... For instance, you’ve got neuropathy, this awful disease that is excruciating for people. And there are no effective drugs for treating it without completely sedating a patient. And here you’ve got cannabis, an herbal remedy that, when used correctly, can be a very positive treatment that doesn’t completely knock somebody out, so they can be functional during the day.”

The New Mexico Department of Health has listed 15 different qualifying health conditions for which a physician may recommend marijuana. They are (deep breath): Severe chronic pain, painful peripheral neuropathy, intractable nausea, severe anorexia, hepatitis C, Crohn’s disease, PTSD, ALS, cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, “intractable spasticity,” epilepsy, HIV/AIDS and inflammatory autoimmune medicated arthritis. In addition, any patient on hospice care may also qualify.

Where do you get it?

Once you get a card, you are eligible to stop by a medical marijuana dispensary. Unfortunately, due to New Mexican regulations on producers not quite keeping pace with patient demand, it can be difficult to acquire the needed medicine.

“We have to turn people away every day,” says Ford. “I’d say that we are able to serve 60 percent to 70 percent of the people who come through our door. ... We limit the amount patients can buy to make sure we can serve everybody who needs it.”

How much can you have?

The law says that a card-holder may keep up to 6 ounces at a time for personal use and grow up to 16 plants. And it had better be for personal use too.

The friendly faces of R. Greenleaf. From left to right: Tim McGivern, development director; Chris Romero, director of operations; and William Ford, president and executive director.
The friendly faces of R. Greenleaf. From left to right: Tim McGivern, development director; Chris Romero, director of operations; and William Ford, president and executive director.
Eric Williams ericwphoto.com

What are the potential consequences?

The thing to remember about medical marijuana is that, even though it has become a normalized part of our landscape, it’s still uncharted ground in many respects. For one thing, possession, use and distribution is still against federal law. Recently, the Obama administration has shown little inclination to pursue medical marijuana dispensaries and users, and in a 2013 memo essentially stated that it would not do so as long as states enacted certain regulations to prevent the sale of pot to minors, the use of dispensaries to provide “cover” for the sale of other illegal drugs, the involvement of cartels and gangs, and other overtly criminal activities.

But that could change. Most obviously, federal priorities are susceptible to shifts in administration, and a new president, for instance, may very well see fit to target state medical marijuana programs as part of a reignited “war on drugs.”

Ford isn’t immune from this concern. “I will never say that it won’t happen. I hope that it won’t, but I keep my eyes and ears open all the time. We’re hyper-compliant, which means that we as an organization are always trying to improve how we do things and keep it compliant, and we give that information to the state to help build a better program.” He hopes that by running his nonprofit this way, it will be better able to weather future storms.

And then there’s the matter of employment. Many private employers continue to test for marijuana use in their employees, and possession of a medical marijuana card is no guarantee that you won’t get fired or disciplined if you come up positive.

In February of this year, for instance, a physician’s assistant was fired from Presbyterian Healthcare Services after testing positive for marijuana. Despite the fact that her use of the substance was medically recommended and thus legal at the state level, Presbyterian maintains a “drug-free workplace” policy and does not exclude medical cannabis patients from disciplinary measures.

“This, more than any government issue, this gets me upset,” Ford says. “Presbyterian has come out and said they don’t support medical cannabis, and they restrict their doctors from being involved. I think that’s dangerous. They’re supposed to be medical professionals, and they should be open to allowing their doctors to serve their patients. ... For Presbyterian to step in and block the rights of individuals is a shame. It is obstructionist and political.”

He proposes a simple solution for any business that maintains such a policy. “They shouldn’t be operating in New Mexico if they aren’t willing to work with medical cannabis.”