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New Mexico panel recommends raising medical pot plant count

December 9, 2020 GMT
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FILE - In this April 6, 2018, file photo, Ultra Health president and chief executive officer Duke Rodriguez discusses the medical marijuana industry during a tour of the company's greenhouse in Bernalillo, N.M. An advisory board is recommending that New Mexico clear the way for licensed medical marijuana producers to grow more plants. The board during a meeting Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, voted in favor of a petition that sought to significantly increase the current plant count limit. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)
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FILE - In this April 6, 2018, file photo, Ultra Health president and chief executive officer Duke Rodriguez discusses the medical marijuana industry during a tour of the company's greenhouse in Bernalillo, N.M. An advisory board is recommending that New Mexico clear the way for licensed medical marijuana producers to grow more plants. The board during a meeting Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, voted in favor of a petition that sought to significantly increase the current plant count limit. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — An advisory board recommended Wednesday that New Mexico clear the way for licensed medical marijuana producers to grow more plants amid persistent concerns about the high costs of cannabis and the lack of variety for patients across the state.

The board during an online meeting voted to recommend that the state health secretary consider increasing the current plant count.

The vote came in response to a petition that sought to either eliminate the limit altogether or significantly increase the number of plants that can be grown by each producer.

Board Chairwoman Stephanie Richmond, a physician assistant with the University of New Mexico Health System, said an increase is warranted because the advisory board recently recommended that patients be allowed to purchase more cannabis within a certain period of time.

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Richmond also said the list of qualifying medical conditions allowing people to buy medical marijuana could be expanded to include anxiety, attention deficient disorders and some substance abuse disorders.

Richmond said those changes, if approved by the state health secretary, could result in increased demand for medical marijuana.

Board member and certified nurse practitioner Ariele Bauers suggested that raising the plant count limit could improve cannabis quality and accessibility.

“A lot of my patients just can’t afford their medicine and so much of that has to do with supply and market demand,” she said.

The medical marijuana industry has pushed for eliminating the limit. Ultra Health, one of New Mexico’s largest producers, has argued in public meetings and as part of court challenges that the limits established by the Health Department are arbitrary.

However, some participants in the program have voiced concerns that the nonprofit model established by the state has devolved into a monopoly in which producers grow mid-grade marijuana and charge what they want.

Dr. Dominick Zurlo, director of the state’s medical cannabis program, noted that previous increases in the plant count have failed to bring down prices. He said licensed producers will have another opportunity next year to request permission to grow an additional 500 plants each on top of the current 1,750 limit.

Zurlo could not explain why prices remain high but he told the board that New Mexico has an adequate supply for the more than 101,000 people now enrolled in the program.

For the quarter ending Sept. 30, licensed producers reporting having just over 30,000 mature plants. Zurlo said there’s still untapped potential because producers are licensed to grow more than 51,000 plants under current regulations.

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The harvest for the quarter marked a 40% increase over the same period last year while the medical cannabis in stock in New Mexico at the end of September was up 48% compared to the same quarter in 2019, Zurlo said.

“At this current time, production is actually outstripping the sales,” he said. “What we as a program and department would really like to see is prices reduced and I think the current production really is showing that those prices could have been reduced.”

The industry has argued that the state’s data is unreliable and that New Mexico’s medical marijuana fee structure adds to operating costs.

Zurlo dismissed that claim Wednesday, saying the last set of rule changes effectively halved the price per plant for producers with the hopes of lessening the financial burden for patients.

The board also is recommending that the state adopt changes to rules governing reciprocity for those patients whose authorization to use medical marijuana originated in other states.

Officials with New Mexico’s marijuana program said the goal is to provide access for people who may be traveling through or living in the state on a temporary basis.

The proposed changes would close a loophole allowing New Mexico residents to see a provider online and get authorization out of state rather than enrolling in New Mexico’s program.

Board members denied a petition to allow medical marijuana as a seizure therapy for pets.

Acknowledging that their expertise is limited to humans, board members acknowledged there are still outstanding questions about cannabis use when it comes to pets.