New Mexicans applying for medical marijuana cards—or renewing them—are waiting too long before they hear back from the Department of Health, according to state law. The state auditor has sent a warning saying if things don’t speed up, he’ll launch a special audit.
State Auditor Tim Keller spoke with KUNM’s Anna Lande about why he’s pursuing the issue and what a backlog means to people seeking medical marijuana in New Mexico.
KELLER: It’s been something that our office has looked at, with respect to how the program is working. And so this is another piece, unfortunately, of how the program seems to be letting down a lot of the folks who both need it, and a lot of the folks who supported it and worked on legislation.
KUNM: You’ve told the Department of Health that you’ll audit the agency if medical marijuana applications aren’t turned around more quickly. How long does the Department of Health have to shape up before you guys run a special audit?
KELLER: Well you know, according to the law they’re supposed to do it in 30 days. And right now, they’re working at either a 60-day or 90-day backlog. And they have assured us that by the Fall they’ll be able to catch up. And that in and of itself is a concern because this is a daily health issue for folks with a lot of serious conditions.
But in terms of the need for further work, we’re going to hope they fix things this summer. And then we’ll take whatever steps we can to make sure it’s fixed if it hasn’t been.
KUNM: What would you be looking for with an audit? And how would it help?
KELLER: We’re trying to shine a light on an issue so that it’s fixed. And so the first step we did was this letter, and talking with them and essentially putting them on notice. Going forward, if there was the need for a special audit, and it highlights a lack of compliance there could be cause for other agencies to take over, emergency contracting—things of that nature that we could compel them to do.
KUNM: So it’s taking the Department of Health two or three months to turn around these applications. Why does it matter that applicants have to wait?
KELLER: A lot of these folks have terminal conditions. It could be cancer, mental disorders, and they often require this kind of medication. And so for us to deprive them of that because of bureaucratic delays, we’re actually impacting people’s health. And that’s why it’s fundamentally a public health issue, and it’s something that they should correct right away. And not point fingers at not having enough money, we’ve identified how that’s not the case or other seemingly red tape-related issues that really they can just blow through by prioritizing this and running the department how it should be run.
KUNM: The Department of Health says a surge in applications is why the waits are longer. Is that a reasonable excuse?
KELLER: We don’t think it is, because if there are more applications they should simply hire more folks or contract more folks to process those applications, which is required by the law. And they have the money to do that.
KUNM: Speaking of money, some of the funds dedicated to the medical marijuana program were siphoned into the state’s general fund. Is that part of the problem?
KELLER: We’re concerned that that might not have been a very responsible decision by the department, because they should be applying those funds to processing this backlog. So, they can ask for a budget adjustment request from the Department of Finance and get the money that they need.
KUNM: Since the slow turnaround time is a violation of the state’s law, do you think other agencies should be looking at investigating?
KELLER: Yes, I do, especially if this problem isn’t cleared up in the next few weeks. And if you can also end up in the court, because victims would have recourse essentially to say the state is not following the law. And as a result, they’re having damages.
So this is a situation where the department really just needs to step up and own the problem and fix it, or else there could be even bigger issues down the road.