New Mexico cannabis board lacks enough doctors

June 9, 2018 GMT

The New Mexico Department of Health’s Medical Cannabis Advisory Board canceled a meeting in May — one of two the panel holds each year to consider changes to the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, such as adding new conditions that allow patients to qualify.

The meeting couldn’t proceed because the board didn’t have enough members. It still doesn’t.

According to state statute, the advisory board is supposed to include eight certified medical practitioners representing the fields of neurology, pain management, medical oncology, psychiatry, infectious disease, family medicine and gynecology.

The panel hasn’t been complete for years, if ever, and its membership recently dwindled to just two, one short of the three needed for a quorum.

The Health Department said in a statement regarding the May cancellation that it was “working collaboratively with the New Mexico Medical Society to recruit new members,” and was reviewing applications for people vying to fill three of the five vacancies.

The department anticipates the board will meet again “in early summer,” the statement said.

Steven Jenison, who has been involved with the Medical Cannabis Program since its inception — first as the Health Department’s medical director, who helped develop regulations for the program, and twice as a member of the advisory board — isn’t optimistic about the board’s future.

“I think it’s going to be hard to recruit people to those positions,” he said.

“One of the biggest reasons is simply that I don’t think the Department of Health has any respect for [the board’s] process and recommendations,” Jenison said, adding that Health Secretary Lynn Gallagher fails to act on recommendations in a timely manner.

For example, Gallagher — who declined through a spokesman to comment for this story — still hasn’t acted on the board’s recommendation in November to add opiate use disorder as a qualifying condition despite overwhelming support from board members and the public.

“The evidence of the opiate-sparing effects are well documented in medical literature,” board Chairwoman Dr. Laura Brown said at the time. “In the face of our opioid overdose epidemic, I don’t think we need to wait for any further evidence or studies.”

It was the second time the board had recommended the condition be added to the program. The first time, in November 2016, Gallagher waited seven months before rejecting it.

“The Medical Cannabis Program does not interact with the medical cannabis board in an entirely constructive manner,” Jenison said Friday. “It’s my belief from significant experience in that regard that the secretary of health seems to not respect the opinions of the medical advisory board.”

Jensison said the fact that many of the petitions for new conditions are not well researched puts the burden of that work on board members, which could make the position unattractive for doctors who would have to take time from busy medical practices to serve.

In addition, Jenison said, the board’s twice-yearly meetings are often spent fielding questions from frustrated patients about issues the board has no control over, in part because patients have very little access to program officials the rest of the year.

And, he said, “there remains a stigma about medical marijuana in the medical community.”

Brown could not be reached for comment Friday. But Dr. Belyn Schwartz, the only other remaining board member, said she agrees with Jenison’s assessment.

“I can’t speak for others,” she said. “But it is frustrating to do the research and make recommendations based on medical opinion and not have those acted upon.”

Schwartz said another reason doctors may not want to sit on the board is that many of them have limited experience using cannabis medicinally, so it’s not something they feel “expert” about.

Jenison said he would consider rejoining the board “if there is a new administration that is more friendly to the program in the future.”

Democratic gubernatorial nominee Michelle Lujan Grisham — who served as health secretary when the Medical Cannabis Program was being developed a decade ago — was “more friendly to the program” than others department leaders have been, said Jenison, who had worked for Lujan Grisham.