Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

NM medical cannabis program sees dip in enrollment

Cultivation assistants Nathaniel Smith, left, and Celestino Flores work inside a growhouse on the 14-acre Ultra Health campus in Bernalillo. (Adria Malcolm/For the Journal)

SANTA FE – Five months in, the launch of recreational cannabis sales in New Mexico has meant an enrollment dip in the state’s medical marijuana program.

After years of rapid growth, enrollment in the medical cannabis program dropped from 133,113 patients as of the end of March to 126,387 patients as of the end of August, according to state Department of Health data.

Dominick Zurlo, the division director of the state’s medical cannabis program, said the patient declined did not come as a surprise, while also predicting enrollment levels would rebound in the coming months.

“It actually is something we expected, and it’s not concerning to us at all,” Zurlo told the Journal.

He said some enrolled patients might renew their medical cannabis cards after realizing that commercial sales are subject to taxation – the tax rate is currently about 20% depending on location – while medical cannabis purchases are not.

However, some prominent cannabis producers and patients say the decrease in medical cannabis patient enrollment might not be just a temporary trend.

Duke Rodriguez, President and CEO of Ultra Health, said the state does not provide sufficient protections and incentives for medical marijuana users to continue signing up.

He also said New Mexico’s medical cannabis program enrollment decline has been even more rapid than what other states that have also legalized recreational marijuana – such as Colorado and Arizona – have seen.

“The adult consumers are squeezing out the medical patients,” Rodriguez said. “After a while, the patients are going to weigh the costs and say, ‘The hassle is not worth it.'”

“I don’t see it stopping,” he added.

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Jason Barker, an Albuquerque medical cannabis patient, said many dispensaries have decided to focus primarily on recreational sales.

While state law stipulates that at least 25% of New Mexico cannabis sales through the end of this year must be to enrolled medical patients or caregivers, that requirement does not apply to each individual dispensary that sells marijuana.

“Some patients aren’t going to the dispensaries they used to because they don’t want to be around the recreational crowd,” said Barker, who said his own health issues put him at enhanced risk from COVID-19 and other sicknesses.

In all, medical cannabis sales made up about 39% of the state’s regulated marijuana sales in September, according to data from the state Cannabis Control Division.

However, medical cannabis sales have dipped since legal sales began in April, going from $17.3 million that month to $15.4 million in September. In contrast, total recreational cannabis sales increased during the time period.

New Mexico launched its medical marijuana program in 2007 – the law is officially called the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act – and the number of people enrolled in the program skyrocketed in its initial years.

There were just 9,950 enrolled patients in September 2013, for instance, but that number rose to 48,861 active patients around the state as of September 2017.

So far this year, the number of enrolled patients peaked at 135,388 card-carrying individuals in May but then decreased in each of the three following months.

Protecting New Mexico’s medical cannabis program and its participants was a key discussion point during lawmakers’ debate over legalizing recreational cannabis. After numerous previous legalization bills stalled, New Mexico became the 17th state to authorize weed sales to adults age 21 and older during a March 2021 special session called by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Despite the recent enrollment drop, Zurlo said he does not foresee the need for legislation during the upcoming 60-day legislative session to further fortify the medical cannabis program.

“A lot of thought and planning went into this… and I think that’s paid off,” he said. “I think the program is well protected.”

He also said predicted cannabis supply shortages brought on by legalization have not materialized on any significant scale.

New Mexico has different purchase and possession limits for medical patients and recreational cannabis users.

Under the medical program, participants can buy up to 425 grams — or about 15 ounces of cannabis flower — every 90 days. Those limits were increased in February from previous purchase limits.

In contrast, adults making recreational cannabis purchases face a limit of no more than 2 ounces per transaction, with corresponding limits for marijuana oils and edibles. But there are no limits on how many cannabis purchases consumers can make in a day or month.

Meanwhile, Rodriguez cited an ongoing lawsuit about whether New Mexico health insurers should cover the cost of medical cannabis prescriptions as important to determining the future of the program.

“We’re not going to go back to the days of acknowledging the importance of the medical cannabis program until we acknowledge the importance of covering medical patients,” he said.

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