He figured 10 percent or 200 of his 2,000 patients have medical cannabis cards. Almost every day he works, about 160 a year, he said, he certifies someone for a new cannabis card or their annual renewal.
This is the first of a three-part series on New Mexico’s medical cannabis program. Today, veteran journalist Tom Sharpe discovers just how easy it is to get a medical pot card. Tomorrow he’ll examine some of the unforeseen consequences of using medical marijuana, and on Friday he’ll look at how the industry has matured in the state.
BY TOM SHARPE
My doctor didn’t hesitate when I asked him to certify me to smoke pot.
“For what?” he asked.
I had spent some time studying the 20 qualifying conditions for the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program: cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, spinal cord damage with intractable spasticity, HIV/AIDS, painful peripheral neuropathy, intractable nausea/vomiting, severe anorexia/cachexia, hepatitis C infection currently receiving antiviral treatment, Crohn’s disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, severe chronic pain, hospice care, inflammatory autoimmune-mediated arthritis, cervical dystonia, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease and ulcerative colitis.
I considered PTSD. Don’t we all cringe at past trauma? Of the 44,403 New Mexicans registered for New Mexico’s program, the largest number, 18,336 or 41 percent, were certified for PTSD. But I decided on the second most used condition, severe chronic pain, chosen by 12,606 or 28 percent.
“Sciatica,” I said. “Starts up high in the back of the left thigh. Moves down into the left side of the calf.”
My doctor hadn’t seemed too concerned when I mentioned this at previous annual checkups. This time, he had me stand up, raise my shirt and bend in different directions while he examined my lower back. Sciatica is a pain in the sciatic nerve in the legs that is believed to be connected to the lower back.
“Ibuprofen makes you nauseous,” my doctor said, more like suggestion than a question.
“Well, I don’t like to take it,” I answered.
I figured I should come clean, so I explained that I was researching a piece about medical cannabis. My doctor, an internist who’s been seeing patients in Santa Fe for four decades and my primary physician for one decade, didn’t want his name used in print or to get a reputation as a dope doctor.
But he figured 10 percent or 200 of his 2,000 patients have medical cannabis cards. Almost every day he works, about 160 a year, he said, he certifies someone for a new cannabis card or their annual renewal. He said the doctor who shares his office does even more.
“I’m a believer in medical cannabis,” he said. “It works for pain, nausea, sleep, anxiety. It’s safer than a lot of the other things we use too often, like sleeping pills.”
Sleep disorders and anxiety are not among New Mexico’s 20 qualifying conditions. The program got started in 2009 with eight conditions. Twelve have been added by the cabinet secretary for the state Department of Health on the recommendation of a seven-doctor medical cannabis board.
Last year, the board recommended adding opioid use, but Cabinet Health Secretary Lynn Gallagher declined to do so. Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed a bill asking the same.
My doctor’s desk had a pile of “Medical Provider Clinical/Diagnostic Notes” forms, downloaded from the state Department of Health website. He made some quick notes on a blank one, signed it and handed it to me. It had taken about 15 minutes.
He asked me to write him a check for $100. Medicare and most private health insurance policies don’t cover doctors’ fees for cannabis-card certification. Any dispensary can give you the name of doctors who will “certify” — not “prescribe” and you will be corrected if you use that term — you for the state program with a cursory examination for $50 or less.
From my doctor’s office, I bicycled to the medical cannabis program headquarters on Rodeo Road. The large office on the second floor of the cube-shaped building was almost empty when I arrived in the early afternoon, save for two clerks talking to a saleswoman. She stepped aside so the clerks could help me. They were courteous and efficient. (The program has 21 staff positions. Thirteen of those were added in the past two years to accommodate the rapid growth.)
I hadn’t completed filling out all my forms, so they pointed me to an empty room with chairs, desks, paper and pens. I finished in a few minutes. One of the clerks glanced through the forms and pronounced them complete. She told me I should be getting my card in a plain envelope in about one month. There was no charge.
Had I wanted to spend $30, I could have applied for a personal production license, allowing me to have up to four mature or flowering cannabis plants and 12 immature, nonflowering or male plants. But I had neglected to bring the required proof of residency (a utility bill will suffice) and was unsure if my backyard would meet the state standard for “how grow will not be seen from public areas.”
Besides, pot plants can draw thieves. I have known people who had them stolen from their backyards. For now, I am primarily interested in the burgeoning retail system. Gardening can wait until next season.
Exactly three weeks later, I received my card in an envelope with the state Department of Health letterhead. There was a list of New Mexico’s licensed nonprofit producers. I can purchase up to 230 units, which are the equivalent to grams, about eight ounces, over three months.
The black-and-white plastic card carries my name, address and date of birth, a 16-digit ID code, a gold symbol that is a computer chip with a record of my purchases and an expiration date of June 21, 2018. I had my wife photograph me with my new card and tucked it into my wallet.