Volunteers Lining Up To Grow Medical Marijuana


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Imagine farmers from near and far lured by the prospect of growing pot for a new niche of medical marijuana patients in The Land of Enchantment.

Since the New Mexico Legislature passed the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act this year, people who want to become licensed producers of medical marijuana have called or visited the state Department of Health. The stories that Health Department employees tell about these characters are hilarious, though no one has been willing to tell those stories on the record for print.

"We've had several people approach us," Dr. Steve Jenison, medical director for infectious diseases with the Health Department, said. "Our response has been -- we have not decided how to implement that part of the law."

What's happening is quite unusual. In other states with medical marijuana laws, the Health Department typically has a small role, such as keeping a registry of patients and caregivers who are approved to use, possess and grow marijuana for medical purposes. Colorado and Oregon, for example, leave it up to patients to figure out where to get their medicine.

The law in New Mexico requires the Health Department to license people within the state to produce, possess, distribute and dispense marijuana for approved patients -- something new that could open the state to a legal battle from the federal government because it means the state would be involved in an activity that the federal government considers a crime.

"If (New Mexico's health) department distributes medical cannabis to qualified patients, they will be the first state Department of Health to do so," Reena Szczepanski, director of the Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, said.

This national group lobbied New Mexico lawmakers to support the bill, and padded Gov. Bill Richardson's campaign coffers with $50,000 in 2006.

Szczepanski notes that seven patients receive medical cannabis from the federal government's National Institute on Drug Abuse, the only other government entity to distribute medical cannabis to patients.

When the law was being formulated, Attorney General Gary King said it wouldn't change the fact that the use, distribution and possession of marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Officially, the federal government doesn't even recognize pot as having any medicinal properties.

And that means, New Mexico's medical marijuana law can't assure state employees -- or anyone else involved in the medical marijuana program -- protection from federal prosecution. "It's still against the federal law, so (state employees) do so really at their own peril at this stage," AG spokesman Phil Sisneros said Thursday.

So far, no one has asked the Attorney General's Office for a formal opinion, he said.

On Thursday, the Health Department, a representative from the AG's office and others heard Dr. Donald Abrams, a clinical researcher at the University of California -- San Francisco, present evidence that supports marijuana as an effective treatment in specific clinical situations. Those assembled also discussed the challenges of implementing New Mexico's new law.

"This is obviously a very complicated issue," Jenison said, "and we're (addressing) it in a very deliberate manner."

For people who have been waiting years for the state to make medical marijuana legal, the message is: Don't be surprised if implementation of the law gets bumpy.

Nonetheless, the Health Department will start issuing free, temporary medical marijuana cards to patients when the law goes into effect July 1, according to Jenison. Later on, a fee will be applied.

The state is putting together an advisory board of eight physicians to formulate rules and regulations regarding the medical marijuana program in New Mexico. By Oct. 1, the program should be fully implemented.

"Yes, we are the only state that has included in statute that the Department of Health will issue regulations regarding the licensure of production and distribution of the medicine," Szczepanski said in an e-mail. "However, many municipalities and counties in other states have implemented regulations about production and distribution, and other states have chosen to promulgate regulations concerning production and distribution though they were not expressly instructed to do so by legislation."

Depending on how the New Mexico Department of Health writes the regulations, card-holders could be allowed to be licensed producers of medical marijuana, she noted.

"There are many possibilities through regulation, and right now experts in the state and nationally are examining these many possibilities for implementation," she said. "Many patients would prefer to receive cannabis through a distribution system rather than 'grow their own,' but that may not be immediately possible."

New Mexico is the 12th state to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes.

Through a constitutional amendment, the drug became available in Colorado in 2001. Today, the registry contains 1,300 patients, according to Ronald Hyman, state registrar of vital statistics.

About 80 percent have been diagnosed with chronic pain. Muscle spasms are the second most common condition of people participating in the medical marijuana program. Notice that patients with cancer or HIV/AIDS are not at the top of the list.

To get a medical marijuana card from the Colorado Health Department, a patient must be diagnosed by a licensed physician in Colorado with one of the qualifying conditions and a doctor must recommend (though cannot officially prescribe) marijuana as a remedy. So far 315 doctors have done so.

No background check into the patient's legal or addiction history is required. The ID card allows the patient to use and possess marijuana, as well as grow up to six plants at a time. But you're on your own to find the seeds.

Every year, the patient must register for a new card with the Health Department. This week, the Colorado Board of Health voted to drop the registry application fee to $90 a year. That's a savings of $20.

The registry is anonymous. But if law enforcement calls the Health Department to check on someone's status, the Health Department must say whether the person is or isn't on the registry.

Production and distribution are left to patients and/or the marketplace. "That is outside our purview," Hyman said. "We do not get into how the individual obtains the substance."

In California, a statewide distribution system wasn't explicitly written into the law, but the law was vague enough that city and county governments have been able to license, regulate or even ban medical marijuana dispensaries. So what you have there is a patchwork distribution system for 13,000 card-holders.

Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project (a pro-legalization group) said the Drug Enforcement Administration has raided some dispensaries in California but hasn't gone after local government entities.

Tim Christie, a reporter at The Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore., explained how the medical marijuana program works there (via e-mail):

"Under Oregon's law, passed by voters in 1998, the only role of state officials is to issue cards to patients who submit an application signed by a physician stating that marijuana MAY help them with one of a handful of conditions and related symptoms (cancer, HIV and AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, nausea, wasting disease, pain, seizures, muscle spasms). The card serves as a shield if police come knocking (though of course it's a meaningless piece of paper if the Feds show up for some reason). Once a card is issued, it is up to the patient to figure out how to get marijuana, either by growing it themselves, finding someone else (dubbed a caregiver, also a card-holder) to grow it for them or to obtaining it on the black market.

"Efforts to liberalize the program (creating state-licensed dispensaries, expanding the number of plants and amount of marijuana that a patient can possess) have failed at the polls.

"I don't have the latest numbers, but the program has grown steadily (thanks in part to one enthusiastic doctor who single-handedly signed thousands of applications, many without seeing the patient, and has since been put out of business by the Board of Medical Examiners)."

The Web site for the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program cites these figures:

* Number of patients holding cards -- 14,050
* Number of Oregon-licensed physicians who have signed applications -- 2,513
* Most common conditions of card-holding patients -- severe pain, persistent muscle spasms and nausea.

In Oregon, the annual application fee is $100 per year. But for those who are enrolled in the state's medical assistance program, the cost is $20.

Of course, that only gets you a card, not the pot. Insurance won't cover the cost of this drug.

In New Mexico, people with cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord, epilepsy, HIV/AIDs or any other medical condition approved by the Health Department can seek a doctor's recommendation for medical marijuana. So can people in hospice care.

Newshawk: CoZmO - 420Magazine.com
Source: The New Mexican (NM)
Author: Diana Del Mauro
Contact: dianadm@sfnewmexican.com
Copyright: 2007 Santa Fe New Mexican
Website: Health matters - Volunteers lining up to grow medical marijuana
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