Saturday, October 10, 2009

Marijuana Licensing Fails to Chase the Shadows -

SANTA FE, N.M. — The only person in America with a state license to distribute marijuana wants to keep her identity secret.

"I'm so totally paranoid I can't stand myself," said the distributor, who runs a nonprofit group here that grows and sells marijuana for medicinal purposes and who insisted on meeting in the privacy of a hotel room.

It was not meant to be this way.

New Mexico's new medical marijuana law was intended to provide safe, aboveboard access to the drug for hundreds of residents with chronic pain and other debilitating conditions. By licensing nonprofit distributors, New Mexico hoped to improve upon the free-for-all distribution systems in some states like California and Colorado, where hundreds of for-profit dispensaries have sprung up with virtually no state oversight.

But even in New Mexico, the process — from procuring the starter seed (in Amsterdam, via a middleman) to home delivery (by a former Marine) — is not for the faint of heart. Those engaged in the experiment here never know if they will be arrested, because growing, selling and using marijuana remain illegal under federal law. And robbery is always a fear.

In a reversal of Bush administration policy, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in March that the government would not prosecute medical marijuana distributors who comply with state laws. That announcement has emboldened Rhode Island to adopt legislation similar to New Mexico's: it will license three nonprofit "compassion centers" to grow and dispense the drug by 2012. At least six other states are now considering the model.

But in recent weeks, law enforcement officers, some of them federal, have raided dispensaries in California and Washington State, and in the absence of any actual change in the federal law, many still fear prosecution.

Among New Mexican patients, demand has been great. In the two months since the Santa Fe Institute for Natural Medicine began dispensing marijuana, it has signed up about 400 clients, said Robert Pack, a patient on its board of directors who uses the drug to curb the side effects of epilepsy medication.

Eager patients depleted the initial supply, and the organization had to hurry to produce more marijuana this month, because weeks of rain hampered the drying and curing phase.

Twenty other nonprofit groups are seeking New Mexico's approval to grow and sell medical marijuana, but the state's Health Department will not identify them, citing privacy and safety concerns. Because the groups remain anonymous unless they identify themselves, other regulatory agencies — the Department of Agriculture, for example, which would inspect their growing techniques — will have no oversight.

Such secrecy seems out of keeping with the law's intent: to help medical marijuana patients emerge from the shadows and gain open access to the drug.

"I think what's appropriate is for this to be completely out in the open," said Len Goodman, a patient who started NewMexicann, a nonprofit group seeking state approval to distribute marijuana. "As long as you follow the rules, you should be able to come out of the closet and function with no fear or shame."

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