Medical marijuana program should come before legalized recreational use

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By Sherry Robinson

Returning from a long drive through Marijuanaland, also known as Colorado, I can report that there is no massive transformation. No potheads loitering in the streets. And citizens are still earnestly debating the subject.
Proponents of legalized cannabis in New Mexico weave tales of vast riches from tax revenues, but it’s not entirely working out that way.
Colorado’s law has a local option provision, so each county gets to decide whether it wants marijuana dispensaries. Some counties have voted it down, and others have yet to vote.
As for tax revenues, a youthful source told me the taxes are so high it’s cheaper to buy it on the street. Recreational users pay a 2.9 percent state sales tax, a 10 percent special marijuana sales tax and a 15 percent retail excise tax.
Because it’s legal to grow six plants, 40 percent goes untaxed, according to the Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division. The projected $48 million in marijuana taxes for the fiscal year ending in June withered to $12 million.
One of my friends complains that Mary Jane’s tax revenues can only be used to build schools — the excise tax’s first $40 million is earmarked for school construction — but some communities don’t need to build a school. They need to improve the schools they have.
On the other hand, Colorado tourism was booming last winter — the best ski season ever — and industry (imagine a marijuana industry) jobs number in the thousands.
While proponents in New Mexico covet the tax revenues or the new freedoms enjoyed by our northern neighbor, New Mexico can’t even get a functioning medical marijuana program off the ground.
Seven years ago, legislators agreed that medical cannabis could benefit cancer patients and people with certain conditions, such as PTSD.
To date the program has just 23 licensed medical marijuana providers, a figure unchanged since December 2010, and the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez has approved no new providers. Those 23 providers are limited to growing 150 marijuana plants.
Meanwhile, the number of patients approved has reached 11,327, despite the New Mexico Medical Board’s heavy-handed attempts to scare doctors out of certifying new patients for the program.
In 2012, several aspiring providers sued the state. The gears creaked forward an inch.
This year the state Department of Health came up with some new rules intended to increase supply and make the program pay for itself. But irate users packed hearings to blast the agency for proposed changes that would saddle producers and patients with much higher costs.
Some of the proposed changes were so petty, they seem spiteful: a reduction in home-grown plants from four plants and 12 seedlings to two plants and six seedlings.
Tell that to a cancer patient using marijuana to reduce the nausea of chemo and stimulate her appetite. Tell that to veterans suffering from PTSD, right after you thank them for their service.
Former Gov. Gary Johnson, the new CEO of a marijuana edibles company, has said Martinez and DOH Secretary Retta Ward came up with the rules to kill the program.
To its credit, however, the Department of Health is listening, unlike the departments of Human Services and Children, Youth and Families in addressing their own controversies.
And a tip of the hat to DOH spokesman Kenny Vigil who has avoided the snippy, better-than-thou attitude of his peers in the governor’s office, HSD and CYFD. He must think he’s a public servant.
Some think the legalization of marijuana is inevitable, and who can argue against a new source of tax revenue?
But Colorado started with a successful medical marijuana program. Whether we legalize weed or not (personally, I’d rather watch Colorado work out the bugs), we need a patient-oriented medical marijuana program here.