The growth in cannabis production has increased greatly in New Mexico in recent years, especially between 2015 and 2016.
In a fourth quarter 2015 report, there were 5,379 total plants in production; that number more than doubled in 2016, when the total plants in production reached 11,565, according to the .
Today, there are over 50 licensed in the state of New Mexico.
Marissa Ramirez is the card company case manager at Peace Medical Marijuana Consultants.
“This past year, the Department of Health saw such an increase in applications that they were actually backed up for weeks,” she said.
The system functions on supply and demand, Ramirez said. With more people requesting medical cannabis cards, there is a greater need to open more dispensaries.
However, there are still restrictions on how many dispensaries can be available and how many cannabis plants are permitted, which can cause supply shortages, she said.
“The nice thing about living in Albuquerque is that if one dispensary doesn’t have anything, you can go to another,” Ramirez said. She has a medical cannabis card herself, and this flexibility helps her access the medication she needs when she needs it.
Ramirez said cannabis dispensaries are also growing in popularity, due to the drug’s constant position in being considered for recreational legality nationwide, as well as growing acceptance.
In the state of New Mexico, there are 20 medical conditions accepted for card applicants, including PTSD, cancer, glaucoma and others. The majority of them require medical records, Ramirez said.
It takes roughly 30 days for a card to be issued after the application, she said. The card must be renewed annually, and cardholders may apply to cannabis at home. Some dispensaries also provide shrubs, or have a caregiver pick up their medication for them.
Ben Daitz is a professor of Family and Community Medicine at UNM and an attending physician at the UNMHSC Pain Consultation and Treatment Center. Roughly 10 to 20 percent of his patients hold cannabis cards, he said.
Instead of prescribing cannabis, physicians in New Mexico fill out part of the NMDOH medical cannabis program application, stating that they believe their patient may benefit from using cannabis for any of the qualifying conditions, Daitz said. Then, the DOH decides whether or not that person can access medical cannabis after looking at the patient’s records.
“Many of my patients — and those of my colleagues — have reported that medical cannabis has helped with their chronic pain, particularly those patients with neuropathic or nerve pain. Patients have also said cannabis has been helpful for insomnia and some for PTSD,” Daitz said.
Florian Birkmayer heads his own practice, the Birkmayer Institute, and works with patients using medical marijuana and collaborates with Ultra Health, a local dispensary, by sharing office spaces.
Birkmayer said he sees about 30 to 60 patients per week using medical cannabis — most suffering from severe chronic pain or PTSD.
There is a misconception that cardholders simply “want to get high...but the vast majority of my clients, like over 95 percent, I feel certain, are just using it for genuine medical reasons,” many of them using strains with minimal intoxicating effects, Birkmayer said.
“With medical cannabis, (many) are able to get their lives back,” he said. This is because they are not overusing opioids to manage their symptoms.
“If there’s a better, safer treatment available that doesn’t cause the side effects of psychiatric medications, and it works better, I think it’s my ethical duty to offer them,” Birkmayer said.
Many patients taking various opioids or mental health drugs are not functioning well, he said.
“There’s this notion of cannabis being this gateway drug,” he said. “What I’ve seen again and again and again is that people who use medical cannabis cut back and stop their prescription opioid use.”
Ramirez said medical cannabis cards are more easily accessible in other states, and some turn away from using cannabis because they feel it is too expensive, but “you’re investing in your health.”
Ramirez has heard many success stories from clients. Some say they have reduced their overall intake of prescription drugs, while others say pain from cancer and other illnesses is alleviated immensely.
“For me, it is comforting to know exactly where my product is coming from, what kind it is and really using it for what I want to use it for in order to manage the symptoms I’m experiencing,” she said said. “Me, much less, but patients that have a slew of conditions — they really need to hone in on what works best for them.”
Elora McMinn, office manager at Peace Medical Marijuana Consultants, said New Mexico state is both with and behind the movement towards complete legalization of cannabis.
Many New Mexicans are noticing that people are being helped in states that have legalized recreational marijuana, so when people are unable to access medical marijuana cards here, “they often have no choice but to buy it illegally,” she said.
Testimonies, research and technology have brought cannabis to the forefront of our awareness, while people are able to view it with more open eyes, McMinn said.
“I’m concerned that we are unable to do the kind of research that is routinely done with other medications because of DEA restrictions,” Daitz said. “Since the 1930s, cannabis has been wrongly classified as a Schedule 1 drug, along with heroin and other opiates.”
We need to learn more about the public health effects of cannabis as well as how different strains/doses work with different conditions, he said.
“We could and should be studying the almost 34k patients in New Mexico’s cannabis program — scrubbed of any identifying info of course — because it’s a trove of important clinical information updated every year, because patients need to renew their cards,” Daitz said. “The DOH seems unwilling to participate in such a research effort.”
Birkmayer said, sooner or later, New Mexico is going to approve recreational cannabis, which creates concerns, such as more children using it, but in other states where recreational cannabis is legal, the rate of youth use has not increased.
However, this may either create a true, open market or a smaller number of dispensaries — the former will offer more options for consumers, while the latter will offer less, he said.
Birkmayer hopes to see other changes surrounding the industry, such as patients with chronic illnesses not needing to renew their card each year.
Elizabeth Sanchez is a reporter for the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Beth_A_Sanchez.