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Taking stock of Puerto Rico’s medical cannabis legislation

By on July 13, 2017

Marijuana grows at a medical marijuana cultivation center in Albion, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

SAN JUAN – After the historic signing of the Law to Improve the Study, Development and Research of Cannabis for Innovation, Applicable Norms and Limits (Medicinal Law), which regulates the use of the plant for its medicinal properties in Puerto Rico, uncertainty about how the central government will establish patient access remains latent among the island’s population.

And although from the outset, Regulation 8766 of the Department of Health prohibits the recreational use of the plant, its flower, or bud, raised controversy between the executive and legislative branches about whether it should be included as part of the alternatives offered to patients or whether the use of cannabis should be limited to substances derived from it.

The point of convergence between both powers in establishing the Medicinal Law is found in Article 5-A2, which offers the option to make the flower available to patients with terminal diseases and others who may need it according to their medical evaluation. A provision many sectors in favor of medicalization consider absurd.

Nevertheless, for attorney Goodwin Aldarondo, president of an organization in defense of medical cannabis, Puerto Rico Legal Marijuana (PRLM), the Medicinal Law constitutes an advancement in the use of the plant on the island, although he admitted that several of its provisions do not align with patients’ real needs.

Aldarondo said the most notable in the enactment of the legislation is that cannabis is now legally regulated on the island. Puerto Rico was the only U.S. jurisdiction where regulation was established without a proper legal framework.

“It has definitely been a great achievement because, who would have said that in 2017, under a New Progressive Party administration, we would have a cannabis law, with such a conservative party. I think it is a great advancement,” the expert on the subject said.

“The other positive aspect is five government agencies are integrated to create a new regulation, and that is positive in the sense that other agencies are being integrated, the Department of Economic Development, the Department of the Treasury, of Agriculture, of Health…,” he said.

However, Aldarondo expressed concern about the composition of the regulatory body for medical cannabis. First, because he believes nine members—six agency heads and three appointed by the governor—would delay the permitting process and, second, because he feels it is crucial there be representation for the patient community and the medical cannabis industry in the board.

The Medicinal Law creates a board ascribed to the Health Department that will implement the law. It will regulate the issuance of patient and dispensary licenses, inspections and have the power to issue fines.

The lawyer explained that until such a regulatory board is formed, the government is forced to continue to use Regulation 8766 as a basis for addressing the needs of patients and the newborn industry.

“Right now, current regulation will prevail until this board creates the new regulation. So everything stays the same until they are organized. That can take them one to two years, easy. [Former Gov. Alejandro] García Padilla did it in less than a year because only the Health secretary established regulation, but when there are nine members, when they have to appoint a medical advisory committee, then make the new regulation, carry out public hearings, make the amendments, we are talking about one year, easy, conservatively speaking,” he said.

Aldarondo explained that changes and amendments to the regulation are inevitable. Stateside, he said, regulations are sometimes amended weekly or monthly. The lawyer believes there will be more amendments to the use of the flower buds.

An employee at the Canna Care medical marijuana dispensary in Sacramento, Calif., displays a pre-packaged marijuana bud on June 14, 2017. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

“It seems to me we have to fine-tune that part of the board, to see if we are going to have a patient representative. That is indispensable, because how is it possible to have a nine-member board, and none of them represent the patients? The governor said he would include some patient representatives and that is indispensable.

“It would also be prudent to have industry representation, some organization that represents the establishments,” he argued, adding that the Medicinal Law creates the parameters so new regulations can be established, but leaves the methods of consumption open to board interpretation, as well as which conditions are considered debilitating, how many licenses will be issued and other matters.

“That board is given great power and we don’t know the names of who its members are going to be, and that could damage the industry because if we have people on that board who know nothing about cannabis, they could err in their decisions,” he said.

Aldarondo said public pressure from organizations that group patients interested in the use of medical cannabis was fundamental to the law’s approval.

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