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New Mexico’s Pot Connection

Under unique state law, New Mexico will grow and distribute medicinal pot.

July 5, 2007— — New Mexico is set to become the first U.S. state to set up a cultivation and distribution system for medical marijuana, sewing the seeds of a possible showdown with federal drug enforcement authorities.

Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democratic presidential candidate, signed the “pot bill” into law this year and tasked the state’s Department of Health with establishing a way to grow and distribute the crop to patients by Oct. 1. The new law may be at odds with federal law, which supersedes state laws, and tightly controls who can grow marijuana and for what purposes.

Even New Mexico’s Attorney General Gary King doesn’t endorse the plan. “We are not behind this. This is not part of what we were asked to look at, and it is not the position of the attorney general,” said Phil Sisneros, the attorney general’s director of communications.

The state can’t guarantee that marijuana users and distributors won’t be prosecuted under federal law, he said. That’s a situation that has become all too common in California, where the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has raided dozens of medical marijuana “pot clubs,” claiming they are simply distributing weed to anyone who drops in.

“It comes down to politics and the degree to which the federal government wants to employ law enforcement resources to try to stop a state from providing medicine to sick people,” said Daniel Abrahamson, director of legal affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that lobbies for relaxation of drug laws.

Smoky Future for State Law

The state is immune from federal prosecution if it simply allows patients and caregivers to cultivate the medicine themselves, Abrahamson said. But when the state itself is the grower and provider, there might be conflict with federal law, he admitted.

Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, said exceptions to U.S. marijuana law have been made for university-sponsored research programs. But he doubts they will apply to the New Mexico plan.

To gain an exception to the Controlled Substances Act, which regulates the manufacture, possession and distribution of controlled substances, federal law requires that one who grows or distributes marijuana must register with the Drug Enforcement Administration, said Garrison Courtney, a DEA spokesman.

The DEA looks at what the drug is, how it’s used, and the security controls in place before it approves the producer or distributor, he said. Even where security measures have appeared strong in other states, DEA officials said the agency has busted countless medical marijuana clinics that looked legitimate but in reality sold pot to nonpatients.

From a federal standpoint, the fate of any New Mexico-sanctioned distribution system isn’t clear. The DEA generally goes after large-scale drug trafficking, and leaves the arrests of local users mostly to state law enforcement, Courtney said.

Pot Policy Debate

New Mexico’s Department of Health said it’s trying to spare patients the travails of buying drugs on the black market by supplying them with medical marijuana from a known, secure source under strict regulation and quality control.

“It’s pointless to say that these individuals can have access and then not give them a way to legally get the marijuana that doesn’t feed drug dealers,” said Reena Szczepanski, director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, who lobbied for the past three years for the new law. She said she hopes that some day patients will have safe and affordable access to medical marijuana from their local pharmacies.

But some critics in Washington aren’t convinced and say the 11 states that have passed medical marijuana laws are sending the wrong message.

“This isn’t about doctors trying to ease pain. It’s about drug legalization groups hiding behind people who are sick and dying in order to promote their cause,” said Lemaitre of the Office of Drug Control Policy. The implementation of other state medical marijuana laws has led to egregious abuses of the system, particularly in California, he said.

In North Hollywood, Calif., alone, there are now more medical pot clubs than Starbucks outlets, he said. Less than two years ago, there were only four marijuana dispensaries in Los Angeles, and this year’s figure has topped 100.

People who use pot for medical purposes say the New Mexico law is much needed. A multiple sclerosis sufferer and medicinal marijuana user, who asked to be called “Lynne,” told ABC News that a state-sponsored distribution system would put her at ease. “It would be great to have a regulated distribution system. This could mean that I will never have to deal with a criminal again or just not be able to get pain relief because I can’t find a dealer,” she said.

Starting July 1, patients in the state began applying for the medicinal marijuana program to obtain an identification card that would provide immunity from state prosecution for possessing a three-month supply of up to 6 ounces of pot.

To qualify, the patient’s primary doctor must certify that the patient suffers either from cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with intractable spasticity, epilepsy or HIV/ADS, and that the benefit of medical marijuana outweighs the potential risks.

“It’s a compassionate policy, and I’m hopeful that when the Bush administration has more pressing issues like the war in Iraq to tackle, this one will be allowed to survive,” Abrahamson said.

New Mexico’s Contentious ‘Pot Powwow’

A cannabis company believes the pot industry could save tribal nations from poverty. But many argue it would only make a drug problem worse.

“You going to Gathering this year?”

Most Native people have heard this question. Short for the Gathering of Nations, the “Gathering” is the largest powwow in North America—one of few pan-Indian cultural fixtures shared by nearly every indigenous group on the continent. Thousands of people from hundreds of tribal nations show up in Albuquerque each year to experience it.

Unlike a traditional powwow, where no commercialization is involved, the Gathering is a contest powwow. More than a display of culture, it is a massive, showy, fiercely competitive athletic event. Dancers are divided into age groups and categories like jingle, fancy, grass, and traditional, and are judged based on style, rhythm, intricacy of regalia, and creativity. Competitors are eligible to win thousands in prize money. For many, powwow dancing is their livelihood, a source of joy and community that also puts food on the table.

It is precisely because of the Gathering’s community-focused nature that the event stirred up controversy this year when its organizers announced a partnership with a new title sponsor: a cannabis company. A chain of dispensaries called UltraHealth is now in a five-year contract with the Gathering as their primary funding source. The deal earned the event a new nickname: the pot powwow.

UltraHealth’s monetary support might be exactly what the Gathering needs to keep the beloved event up and running. Still, many are skeptical of the company’s intentions. Does marijuana—medical or otherwise—belong at a family event like a powwow?

Duke Rodriguez, the CEO of UltraHealth, believes that the cannabis industry is a way out of economic deprivation for tribal nations, many of which have struggled for generations with high rates of unemployment and poverty. In 2014, the Justice Department made it so that all tribal nations have a right to legalize growing and selling of marijuana if they want to, so Rodriguez now dreams of building marijuana growing and distribution enterprises across Indian country. On wide-open reservation lands where some outsiders see a whole lot of nothing, Rodriguez sees an opportunity to strike a competitive advantage.

“If I wanted to build a non-tribal venture, I’d have to go out and buy a large piece of land,” he said, “Tribes already own these holdings.”

The UltraHealth headquarters in Scottsdale, Arizona, doesn’t exactly scream “controversy.” It looks like a suburban realty company, or maybe a place where you could get your accounting done. Rodriguez is business casual, too, in his polo, khakis, and full head of salt and pepper. He is full of sound bytes and fun facts about all things cannabis, and his success in pitching marijuana is probably due in part to his enthusiasm and appearance of good health. A former CFO for a medical center and one-time secretary of New Mexico’s Human Services Department, he is committed to maintaining that same air of government-health care professionalism with his pot company.

Rodriguez is interested not only in tribally owned enterprises, but also in tapping into the individual Native American market. Understanding that Native culture is rooted in and familiar with natural medicines, he’d like to see more people choose pot as an alternative to pharmaceuticals. Some tribal nations are on board with UltraHealth. So far, they have partnered with the Las Vegas Paiute tribe, and Rodriguez claims they are in talks with dozens more. “There’s no stopping it,” he says. “This is the Superbowl of Indian country. Tribes are leading the way in the cannabis business, and I think people are tickled by it.”

Well, not everyone. Some worry that the presence of pot at a powwow will encourage drug experimentation. Vaughan Rees, the director of the Center for Global Tobacco Control at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says that UltraHealth is pulling marketing tactics from the big tobacco playbook. “They’re integrating their branding into the Native American community, and they’re promoting the idea that these products are safe, and something that everybody does, and that changes social norms,” Rees says. “That makes the job of the people whose mission to reduce the introduction of drugs or other potentially risky behavior more difficult.”

Rees says that this is the most explicit example he’s seen to date of the marijuana industry advertising to a specific racial or ethnic population. It is something, he anticipates, that will continue. “These are the battles we’re going to have to fight as the cannabis industry spreads its tentacles,” he says. “It just makes me sick.”

Theda Newbreast, a board member for the Native Wellness Institute from the Blackfeet reservation, also sees parallels to the tactics of tobacco and other industries. “The beer companies used to bring candies wrapped in their logos to our reservations and pass them out to kids, and the tobacco companies tossed out candy cigarettes at our parades,” she says “I worry that a 10-year-old who is on the fence might get curious and now feel okay to try it.”

Whether marijuana is a gateway drug remains a question, but we do know that Native American populations suffer from the highest rates of substance abuse in the country. Native people start young, and they do often start with pot: A 2014 National Institute on Drug Abuse study found a much higher prevalence of marijuana use among Native than non-Native students. From 2009 to 2012, 56.2 percent of Native American eighth graders had used marijuana in the past month, whereas only 16.4 of non-Native eighth graders had done so.

High rates of unemployment and poverty in Native communities might be why many have turned to drugs. Opioid use has been linked to financial strain, and Native communities are among the hardest hit by the opioid epidemic.

“We have so much trauma,” Newbreast says. “The taking of our land, loss of our languages, poverty, violence, sexual abuse from the boarding-school days—because of it, we are super vulnerable. We have a much higher propensity to addiction.”

Rodriguez is well aware of the prevalence of substance abuse in Native communities, but sees no moral conflict of interest. UltraHealth’s website shows a photo of a Native American man saying, “I manage my PTSD with UltraHealth.” Ande Rodriguez argues that the option to use marijuana would actually curb the use of pain pills, a far more addictive and potentially dangerous threat. “Medical cannabis could be a way out of opioid addiction for tribes,” he says.

There’s precedent for this idea. Some studies have suggested that in states where medical cannabis has become legal, opioid deaths and usage have gone down. In New Mexico, where UltraHealth owns several dispensaries, opioid use in the past year has decreased. And Department of Health statistics show that in Rio Arriba County, a place with an 18 percent Native American population and the highest drug-overdose death rate in the state, opioid deaths went down by 30 percent from 2014 to 2015. Whether medical marijuana has anything to do with it is yet to be studied.

In a promotional video, the company uses several images of Native children in traditional dance regalia. One shot is of a Native American toddler playing on the ground, surrounded by cannabis plants. Still, the company insists that they are only marketing weed’s benefits to adults. “Cannabis is not good for a developing brain” Rodriguez says. “The science is clear on that, and for anybody to be marketing cannabis to young people is irresponsible.”

In its first year, UltraHealth’s presence at the Gathering was minimal. All they had was a burlap tent, tucked behind food vendors, with the UltraHealth and High Times logos on it. But the booth remained empty all weekend, with no staff present and nothing to see inside.

Rodriguez later confirmed that the company had intended to display a cannabis plant and offer promotional materials, but the idea got botched by an ongoing dispute between UltraHealth and the New Mexico Department of Health. Last September, UltraHealth brought a non-flowering cannabis plant to the New Mexico State Fair. By the end of the day, the DOH ordered that they remove the plant because, they said, it constituted drug paraphernalia. They also ordered that all New Mexico UltraHealth locations be closed for five consecutive business days as punishment.

UltraHealth appealed the case, and filed a federal suit against EXPO New Mexico officials, claiming that they unconstitutionally limited the company’s rights to free speech and expression. They anticipate trial later this summer.

“We decided to leave the plant behind this time because we didn’t want to cause any trouble,” Rodriguez says.

The New Mexico Tourism Department decreased their usual funding contribution for the Gathering this year. Rodriguez said that it “seemed implied” that this was due their disdain for the UltraHealth partnership. The Gathering of Nations founders, Derek and Lita Matthews, declined to comment on the funding mishap, or on anything else regarding UltraHealth. The New Mexico Tourism Department didn’t address questions about any grievances about UltraHealth’s involvement with the powwow. “The Gathering of Nations is one of our New Mexico True treasures,” the Department says, adding that they sustained budget cuts this year, and had less ability to formally sponsor events.

UltraHealth intends to resolve their dispute with the State, and Rodriguez is confident that by next year, they will have the freedom to display much more cannabis marketing materials at the Gathering, including actual plants for people to “get comfortable with.”

Rodriguez says he once heard that one Pueblo community found ancient marijuana seeds in their land, and suggested the possibility of a far-reaching historical tie between Native communities and cannabis that somehow became severed over the years. Newbreast disagrees. “In my lifetime and my 35 years working in public health across Native country, I’ve never seen anybody use cannabis for ceremony,” she says. “I’ve seen peyote, and in a ceremonial context, that can do a lot of good. But I’ve also seen it abused.”

Newbreast also has seen friends of hers benefit from medical marijuana, and agrees that if distributed properly, in the right context, it could be appropriate. “When it comes to any sort of medicine, whether pain pills or cannabis or tobacco, it has to be administered with compassion,” she believes. “In order for it to help, it has to be done with love.”