By Chuck Slothower, The Daily Times
Erik Larson experienced his first seizure on the roof of Hastings Entertainment in Farmington, where he was installing heating and cooling equipment.
For eight years afterward, Larson, who has epilepsy, could not find any medicine that worked as he became increasingly debilitated. An allergy to opiates ruled out many painkillers.
“The pain some days was excruciating,” Larson said.
He recently obtained a medical marijuana card with the help of New Mexico Green Light, an Aztec business that guides patients through the application process.
Kristina Sells, of Aztec, owns and operates the business at 410 S. Park Ave. A doctor has stepped forward to recommend medical marijuana for qualified patients, and an attorney can help patients with legal issues.
“What I get paid for, basically, is convenience,” Sells said.
To obtain a license, patients must have an established history of treatment for at least one of 16 conditions that qualify for medical marijuana. They also must get the recommendation of a doctor. And for chronic pain, the most common condition that qualifies for medical marijuana, a second doctor’s opinion is necessary.
Finally, a patient’s entire application must be approved by a state board composed of physicians.
“This is not an easy process,” Sells said.
Although medical marijuana has been legal in New Mexico since 2007, the infrastructure to support patients is only now beginning to emerge in San Juan County.
The New Mexico Department of Health earlier this month approved the county’s first medical marijuana producer and distributor. It is not known when the operation will open; the department releases distributors’ names and locations only to approved patients.
For now, most patients either grow their own marijuana or drive to dispensaries in Grants or the Albuquerque area, Sells said. But some are too sick to drive that far or don’t know how to cultivate the plant.
“A lot of the patients that come here have no options,” she said.
Sells worked for Colorado Medical Marijuana, a for-profit company, before starting New Mexico Green Light in March. While working in Colorado, she said, “I would get probably 20 to 50 calls a day from people in New Mexico.”
She continues to work with Colorado Medical Marijuana.
“The laws are completely different,” she said. “New Mexico is the strictest state for getting your medical marijuana license.”
Sells said most of her patients are ages 45 to 76. Marijuana seekers without legitimate medical conditions quickly will be turned away, she said.
The primary obstacle to obtaining a medical marijuana card is a doctor’s recommendation, which makes New Mexico Green Light’s relationship with a local physician crucial.
Dr. Bryan Poe of Aztec Family Practice said he became interested in medical marijuana after his stepson returned from two tours of duty in Iraq with post-traumatic stress disorder. The soldier obtained a medical marijuana card in Colorado.
“I saw how it did help him with his symptoms,” Poe said. “I thought, well, maybe there are people here who have legitimate medical diagnoses where it would help them.”
Although some dispensaries bring doctors in from elsewhere to write recommendations, Poe is no newcomer. He has practiced family medicine in Aztec for 24 years.
“I look at this as an alternative medicine to help people that meet the criteria under the law of New Mexico that could benefit from medical cannabis,” he said.
New Mexico Green Light works with Farmington attorney Cosme Ripol to provide legal advice to patients. Ripol could not be reached Friday for comment.
Sells said legal advice is necessary because some of Green Light’s patients were improperly arrested for marijuana possession.
Sells said she does not use marijuana and does not support its recreational use.
The future of medical marijuana is far from assured, creating an uncertain business environment for entrepreneurs like Sells. Fifteen states have approved some form of medical marijuana legislation, but it remains illegal under federal law.
California voters this month rejected an effort to legalize marijuana for recreational use, an attempt Sells said she opposed.
President Obama has taken a hands-off approach to states’ experimentation with medical marijuana. But that easily could change with the next president.
In New Mexico, Gov.-elect Susana Martinez has said she wants to work toward repeal of the state’s medical marijuana law.
“Governor-elect Martinez opposes the medical marijuana law and believes there are other avenues that can be pursued to alleviate pain among those with serious illnesses,” spokesman Danny Diaz said in a statement by e-mail Friday.
Sells is undaunted by medical marijuana’s smoky future.
“If it changes, it changes,” she said. “I think you’ll have a lot of angry patients that will bind together.”
For patients such as Larson, medical marijuana literally is a lifesaver. Without it, he said, “I would be dead.”
Larson, 41, cannot smoke so he ingests his medicine via marijuana-infused butter or tea. He said it allows him to spend time with his children.
“My prognosis is not good and it’s not going to be good, and I’ll probably have a pretty painful death,” he said. “But until that day, I have something that will help my quality of life.”