Medical marijuana patients need to have a voice in discussions about how medical marijuana laws and policies are crafted, according to Paul Culkin, a 30- year-old military veteran who recently organized a patients’ organization. About 35 people attended the first meeting of the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients Group on January 9 and they’ve already got something big to talk about.
Sen. John Sapien, a first-term Democrat from Corrales, has introduced legislation that would apply a 25 percent excise tax on the value of medical marijuana sold by producers, as well as a gross receipts tax on its purchase by patients. Sapien told The Independent he had not heard of any other proposals to tax medicine or drugs recommended as treatments by physicians.
“Most patients don’t have the money to purchase equipment for a grow room, many aren’t physically able to grow their own, and many are on social security and fixed incomes,” Culkin said about the tax proposals, especially the excise tax. “At about $400 an ounce already, this would hurt them a lot.”
But considering the state’s budget deficit, legislators should be proactive about ensuring there’s an economic benefit to the state, according to Sapien. Other states—such as California—are already taxing the drug, he said. And, it’s not a given that the 25 percent excise tax will be passed on to the patient—that’s up to the producer.
Culkin estimates that on average, patients use 1-2 ounces of medicinal quality marijuana a month.
In New Mexico, medical marijuana is allowed for patients with 15 specific conditions, including severe chronic pain, cancer, Crohn’s disease, severe anorexia, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, and HIV/AIDS.
Sapien told The Independent he understands and supports the medicinal use of marijuana because it’s been proven scientifically that the drug can relieve pain.
“I’m very compassionate to the people experiencing the illnesses in the Act, and those who have taken the steps to receive their card,” he said. “I’m in no way trying to discount, or put myself in the position of someone who has these illnesses.”
Sapien said it’s up to the business to decide how to deal with a tax. “I’m not going to assume where that’s going to land. Whether they apply the tax toward the cost or the income of the nonprofit–that’s up to the business,” Sapien said.
But New Mexico isn’t California, Culkin explained. In California, dispensaries are regulated differently, and the market is much more competitive. But here, the state controls where, when and who gets to be a non-profit producer of the drug, (so far there are only five ) and the upfront costs of developing a medical marijuana nonprofit to the specifications of the state are high, Culkin said, with no guarantee the state will sign off on the application. This is why prices are already high at about $400 an ounce on average, he continued, and patients who already struggle to make ends meet won’t be able to afford the drug if a new 25 percent excise tax is applied that producers pass on to the patients.
Currently, the New Mexico Department of Health takes a hands off approach on pricing of the drug, although all other aspects of the medical marijuana non-profits are highly regulated.
Group plans to be a voice for patients
Culkin decided to form the patients group after attending the International Drug Policy Reform Conference, held in Albuquerque last November, where he learned that other states have strong patients’ groups advocating to make programs more patient-oriented and compassionate.
He advertised on Craigslist to meet other patients, he said, and met Mr. Garcia, a disabled vet who uses medical marijuana to treat a post traumatic stress disorder. (Mr. Garcia asked that we not use his first name because he does not want it known that he has marijuana in his home.)
The two have been the principle organizers of the group via the Internet, and first group meeting was held at Garcia’s house.
“The only one who knows what is good for the patient is the patient,” Garcia told The Independent. “We’re just average people, but we need to come together to have one voice. Otherwise we won’t be taken seriously.”
Patients have flagged several things that should be changed, Garcia and Culkin told The Independent. One big issue for them is the fact that patient caregivers, who are licensed to possess and administer medical marijuana for the sole use of a designated patient, are not allowed to grow it. This makes it hard for physically frail patients to save money by growing the drug themselves. Most other states allow caregivers to be the licensed growers of the drug for designated patients, and New Mexico should too, they said.
Garcia also hopes enough veterans will join with him in pressuring the Veteran’s Administration to allow V.A. doctors to sign off on medical marijuana recommendations, and to allow medical marijuana patients to participate in their programs. Currently, patients run the risk of being barred from V.A. alcohol and drug therapy programs if they test positive for marijuana. This makes no sense to Garcia, who said that medical marijuana helped him reduce–from seven to two–the number of prescription drugs he takes.
“I was like a walking zombie, they had me on so many heavy medications,” he said. “They do this a lot to vets. I told the doctors I didn’t want to take those drugs anymore. I’m not a guinea pig. The cannabis has made it possible for me to get down to just two other medications.”
Garcia said there are veterans “everywhere” who would benefit from medical marijuana and he hopes the V.A. can be convinced of the value of the drug.
By Marjorie Childress