Congress Hands A Mixed Bag to Marijuana Movement

The year-end spending bill gives momentum to the marijuana movement, plus a painful setback

For the marijuana legalization movement, 2014 ends the way it began: with legal changes that showcase the movement’s momentum alongside its problems.

Tucked into the 1,603-page year-end spending bill Congress released Tuesday night were a pair of provisions that affect proponents of cannabis reform. Together they form a metaphor for the politics of legal cannabis—an issue that made major bipartisan strides this year, but whose progress is hampered by a tangle of local, state and federal statutes that have sown confusion and produced contradictory justice.

First the good news for reformers: the proposed budget would prohibit law enforcement officials from using federal funds to prosecute patients or legal dispensaries in the 32 states, plus the District of Columbia, that passed some form of medical-marijuana legalization. The provision was crafted by a bipartisan group of representatives and passed the Republican-controlled House in May for the first time in seven tries. If passed into law, it would mark a milestone for the movement, restricting raids against dispensaries and inoculating patients from being punished for an activity that is legal where they live but in violation of federal law.

“The enactment of this legislation will mark the first time in decades that the federal government has curtailed its oppressive prohibition of marijuana, and has instead taken an approach to respect the many states that have permitted the use of medical marijuana to some degree,” Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said in a statement to TIME. The California Republican’s work on the issue reflects the strange coalition that has sprung up to support cannabis reform as the GOP’s libertarian wing gains steam and voters’ views evolve.

At the same time, the House chose to overrule Washington, D.C., on the issue. Last month voters in the District chose to liberalize its marijuana laws, passing an initiative that legalized the possession, consumption and cultivation of recreational marijuana. The move, which was supported by about 70% of the capital’s voters, paved the way for D.C. to follow in the footsteps of Colorado and Washington State by establishing a tax-and-regulatory structure for cannabis sales in 2015.


New Mexico patients suffer cannabis shortage

Demand for medical marijuana under the state’s five-year-old program has soared, but supply of the weed for debilitating conditions has been strained to the point that New Mexico producers have turned away thousands of patients in recent months and rationed the supply to others.

Those are among the findings of a newly released survey of pot producers and patients commissioned by the state Department of Health.

“I have had to purchase from the street at times, and the quality is usually better, and it’s cheaper. That’s not right,” commented one patient whose name was edited from the 65-page report, which was provided to the Journal in response to a records request.

Another unnamed patient reported “producers running out of medical cannabis very quickly, ie: the same day they send an email stating what is available to purchase.”

New Mexico was the first state to have its state Department of Health license and regulate a nonprofit medical marijuana distribution delivery system.

But the program is experiencing growing pains.

The number of licensed producers has dropped from a high of 25 to 23, while the number of active patients certified to buy medical cannabis hit 10,289 as of Oct. 31, according to state officials, increasing by 1,200 from earlier this year.

The number of medical conditions eligible for cannabis use has grown to 17, with PTSD and chronic pain accounting for the largest segments of users.

Last week, a state medical marijuana advisory board recommended the addition of three new medical conditions to the list, including Parkinson’s disease and traumatic brain injury. No decision has yet been made by the DOH.

The survey was conducted by an independent contractor in August and September. About 25 percent of the 2,700 randomly selected users completed and returned the surveys. Respondents ranged from 19 to 83 years of age, with the average being 49.

DOH is still reviewing the survey results, said medical cannabis program coordinator Andrea Sundberg.

“We are taking it seriously,” she said. “We don’t want to do a knee jerk reaction. We’re analyzing it to determine what the next best steps are going to be.”

The survey asked about weekly usage and purchases, and concluded that just under 10,000 patients in the program would need more than 11,000 pounds yearly. But producers are reporting harvests that would provide only about 2,200 pounds.

“How can we get medicine if more patients apply every day but the amount of medicine stays the same,” asked one survey participant. “This program has brought me so much, using mind-numbing drugs never worked for me. What do I do when the well dries up?”

Another commented: “Medical grade is more available on the street than from nonprofit org!”

Sundberg said the nonprofit producers licensed by the state are allowed to grow only 150 plants at a time, but yields have recently increased as producers “have learned more about production and how to get a higher yield per plant.”

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