Suit Against MCP For Lack of Rural Access

By Olivier Uyttebrouck for the Albuquerque Journal

Medical marijuana patients in Albuquerque and Santa Fe can go to a nearby dispensary to obtain their marijuana. But patients in rural New Mexico – many of them ill – often are forced to meet with delivery drivers in parking lots of businesses such as McDonald’s and Wal-Mart to purchase their pot.

That puts them at risk of violating federal drug laws, violates their privacy and puts them in danger because they have to carry cash, according to a lawsuit filed against the state Department of Health.

“What we’ve got now are people hanging out at McDonald’s waiting for their weed,” said Santa Fe attorney Jason Flores-Williams, who filed the lawsuit Friday on behalf of two unidentified patients. “You may as well go back to the 1980s.”

New Mexico lawmakers made medical marijuana legal in 2007, but the use, sale and possession of cannabis remains illegal under federal law, putting New Mexico medical pot patients at risk of arrest for buying marijuana in public, Flores-Williams said Monday.

The lawsuit contends that the state Department of Health’s process for approving licensed producers has concentrated dispensaries in Santa Fe and Bernalillo counties, denying rural New Mexicans equal access to medical pot.

“What we have here is a denial of access to large portions of this state due to the Department of Health’s failure to license in an equitable way,” he said.

The system for distributing medical marijuana in rural areas requires patients to wait in parking lots and public places carrying up to $200 in cash to pay for the deliveries, Flores-Williams said.

“It’s creating a dangerous environment, because you have all these sick people who everybody knows have to pay cash to get their medical cannabis,” Flores-Williams said.

The practice also deprives patients of their basic right to privacy in their medical treatments, he said. “All of these people are recognizable and everybody knows why they are there.”

The New Mexico Department of Health responded in a written statement Monday that “licensed nonprofit producers make arrangements with their patients for delivery of medicine.”

The 1st Judicial District Court lawsuit also was filed on behalf of Viridescent, a Grants nonprofit, that applied unsuccessfully this year to become a nonprofit medical marijuana producer.

The suit contends that the Department of Health used a flawed process to evaluate Viridescent’s application.

Licensed nonprofit producers are selected through a competitive process, the Department of Health said in its written statement.

“There were more than 80 applicants, with 12 selected for licensure,” the statement said. “Any time you have a situation like that, there will be applicants who are disappointed. (Health Secretary Rhetta Ward) stands by her decision about the applicants selected for licensure.”

Health officials last month selected the 12 applicants to become licensed nonprofit producers, subject to site inspections. Eight of the selected applicants are located in Bernalillo County, and one each in Chaves, Santa Fe, Taos and Valencia counties.

If approved, it would increase to 35 the number of licensed medical pot producers in New Mexico, with most located in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Patients often can buy medical marijuana directly from a producer, but dispensaries can also arrange deliveries to patients.

The number of New Mexicans licensed to buy medical marijuana has surged by about 50 percent this year to more than 18,000 patients.

The suit says that several hundred licensed medical cannabis patients in the Grants area have the limited choice of driving to dispensaries in Albuquerque or Gallup, which has a single store-front dispensary.

Those who are unwilling, or unable, to make the trip are required to wait in a Walmart parking lot for the arrival of a delivery driver, Flores-Williams said. The drivers typically send text messages to patients telling them when and where to wait for deliveries.

Delivery sites in cities such as Grants, Raton and Santa Rosa can include store parking lots, TravelCenters of America and Microtel Inn & Suites, the lawsuit said.

The practice also has the potential to put those businesses at risk of violating federal law, it contends.

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal