ALBUQUERQUE – New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas says health officials would be running afoul of open-record laws by withholding the names of those who apply to be licensed medical marijuana producers in the state.
Balderas’ office on Monday made public a letter he sent to the state Department of Health in response to proposed confidentiality changes.
The changes will be the subject of a public hearing scheduled Wednesday in Santa Fe.
While the names of licensed nonprofit producers would become public, Balderas is concerned about a provision allowing for the names of those vying for licenses to remain secret during the application period.
Balderas said state law clearly allows for the names and addresses of people who hold or apply for medical marijuana patient cards to remain secret. However, he contends the department is exceeding its authority and circumventing the intent of the Inspection of Public Records Act by reserving confidentiality for prospective producers.
“The importance of maintaining an open and accessible government is essential to the function of democracy. A public agency cannot unilaterally determine that it will withhold records by creating a confidentiality regulation, unsupported by legislative authority, to bypass the IPRA,” Balderas wrote in his letter.
Kenny Vigil, a spokesman for the Health Department, said officials with the state’s medical marijuana program received the letter Monday and are reviewing it.
The letter will be part of the public comment for the proposed rule changes, and it will be submitted to the hearing officer along with other comments the department has received, Vigil said.
“The rule change process is designed to get feedback about the proposed changes,” he said.
The health secretary will await a recommendation from the hearing officer before making a final decision. Vigil did not say when that might happen.
The confidentiality surrounding producers was challenged last year in a lawsuit filed by freelance journalist Peter St. Cyr and the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government.
They argued that the agency was violating the public records law by keeping producers’ names secret.
The department last fall began work to revise the rules.
In October, the department also announced it would issue 12 new licenses, bringing the number of licensed nonprofit producers in New Mexico to 35.
About 18,000 patients are enrolled in the state’s medical marijuana program, many of them citing chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder as their qualifying conditions.