New Mexico's Medical Pot Program Has Slow, Cautious Start
November 16, 2009 - 1:32 PMBusinessman Len Goodman owns a company that makes hand-painted art tiles, but these days his office desk is strewn with the raw materials of a new enterprise: fat, sweetly pungent marijuana buds.
Newly licensed by the state to produce and distribute medical marijuana, Goodman must decide which strains he will grow in a steel-doored industrial building somewhere in Santa Fe County that will soon be converted into a high-tech indoor greenhouse.
"Every one is different," Goodman said of the brownish buds in plastic bags. "It's like wine."
While California confronts a proliferation of pot shops and Colorado wrestles with regulations, New Mexico is slowly and quietly breathing life into a 2007 law that allows patients with certain medical conditions to get relief from marijuana.
The first state to license producers, New Mexico gave the OK to one nonprofit in March and four others last week.
Patients with a qualifying condition - there are 15 - must get recommendations from medical providers, apply to the Department of Health, then, if they are approved, reapply each year.
There were 755 approved patients as of last week, according to the state agency.
"This is medical marijuana," said Goodman, who submitted 100 pages of plans to the department to get licensed. "This is not de facto legalization."
The licensing of four new nonprofits is welcome news to patients. The first provider ran out of marijuana shortly after it began distribution in July, and wasn't expected to have more for months.
With each producer limited to 95 plants, there was no way for one nonprofit to keep up with the growing demand as more patients were certified.
The medical cannabis program, as the department refers to it, "will continue to proceed carefully ... so we can meet the needs of our patients while not creating an excess supply," Health Secretary Dr. Alfredo Vigil said when he announced the latest licensing.
The department doesn't disclose the names of patients or producers, saying it wants to ensure their safety.
Goodman, who came forward on his own, isn't critical of the department's policy but says he thinks patients and producers should be forthright.
"I think the faster we move away from a paranoid drug dealer model to a normal business model, the better it's going to be," he said. "It's like coming out of the closet. If people are not out of the closet, nothing changes."
Goodman arrived in New Mexico in the late 1960s and lived briefly at the famed New Buffalo community in Taos, inspiration for the commune scene in the film "Easy Rider." He started Arius Tile in 1972.
He is also a registered medical marijuana patient, who says he smokes occasionally for post traumatic stress disorder stemming from a fatal automobile accident in 1992. He said marijuana helped him shake his longtime reliance on prescription anti-anxiety and anti-depression drugs and "became a medicine for me."
He sees providing medical marijuana as a public service. His nonprofit, NewMexiCann, plans to do patient outreach and advocacy.
"Whether they buy from us it doesn't matter. We believe in medical marijuana," he said.
He hopes to be able to begin distribution as early as February. He'll make deliveries to patients, rather than have a dispensary.
The health department estimates each producer should be able to supply about 100 people. Of the 755 approved patients, more than 200 have been authorized to grow their own marijuana.
Reena Szczepanski, director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, who lobbied for the law, said the state-licensed production provision grew out of concerns of patients who didn't want to get the state's OK to use the drug then be forced to buy it illegally. It became a model for other states, she said.
Maine voters recently approved state-licensed dispensaries, and Rhode Island allows three nonprofit pot shops.
Szczepanski said it remains to be seen whether New Mexico's supply and distribution system will be adequate and workable.
"But the whole point of having a regulated system is we can find out these things," she said.
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