ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Len Goodman can't grow enough marijuana to keep up with demand.
He is one of just 11 growers approved by New Mexico to produce pot for all of the state's 2,000 registered medical marijuana patients, and his customers routinely wipe out his supply. Once a strain of marijuana is harvested, dried and cured, he sends an announcement that patients can place orders, and the pot is usually gone in 24 hours.
New Mexico has been so cautious in licensing and regulating growers under its 3-year-old medical marijuana law that the small number of providers can't grow enough, creating a shortage that has forced some patients to the street to buy illegal drugs.
The dilemma in New Mexico could have ramifications elsewhere because the state's program has been held up as a national model, with other states looking to replicate its strong regulatory structure to avoid the chaos that has prevailed in places like California.
Prospective pot growers are subjected to a painstaking screening process before being granted a license. Once that happens, they are limited to 95 plants and seedlings and an inventory "that reflects current qualified patient needs."
The providers' identities and locations are kept secret, avoiding the kind of storefront dispensaries that have flourished in Colorado and California.
State Health Secretary Dr. Alfredo Vigil says he must balance patients' needs against preventing so much legal pot from being grown that it ends up in the illegal market. He said the program is being expanded methodically to ensure sufficient oversight and to get to know producers and how they operate.
He also opposes having hundreds of producers and many thousands of patients, which he said "absolutely takes it out of the arena of use for in-state patients and into the arena of defacto legalization."
Medical marijuana patient Larry Love sees New Mexico as an example of what not to do. He contends the department approves new growers much too slowly.
Love, who runs a radio blog and has been highly critical of Vigil, got his medical marijuana card in June 2009 but said it was November before he could get a supply from an authorized grower. He said that drove him and other patients to the illegal market, despite the risks.
Goodman's Santa Fe County business, NewMexicann, has 650 registered patients — five times the number of patients he said he can supply. Other producers are in similar shape, he said.
As a result, he has to ration pot to patients who are chronically ill.
"Sometimes they don't have enough so they use it when it's really severe, which is not good," he said. "It's like seniors cutting down on their meds because they can't afford it."
The situation in New Mexico is being closely watched by other states as medical marijuana becomes increasingly popular nationwide.
New Jersey, Iowa, Maine, Rhode Island, Hawaii, Colorado, Washington, D.C., and some California municipalities have called about New Mexico's law, Health Department spokeswoman Deborah Busemeyer said. They have been asking how the state manages producers and how it's kept some control over legal pot while avoiding problems with federal agencies, since marijuana remains illegal under federal law.
New Jersey and Rhode Island have laws that are closer to New Mexico's system than California's much more freewheeling one.
New Mexico passed its medical marijuana law in 2007 with a groundbreaking provision to license production and distribution.
The Health Department spent more than a year crafting regulations, electing to go with a state-licensed system of nonprofits that places strict restrictions on how much pot they can grow.
Patients can get licenses to grow their own, but most turn to the state-sanctioned growers. The first producer wasn't approved until March 2009. The health Department OK'd four more in November, then six more last week. It takes five to six months for a grower to ramp up to production.
In the meantime, patient rolls have grown to about 2,000. New Mexico approved 200 patients in the program's first year; now it's approving about 200 a month.
While Love praised the approval of the new producers, he said New Mexico still will have only about half the supply it needs for current patients. He claims the state needs at least 10 more producers by the end of the year to keep up.