By Tracy Dingmann
I have noted the Journal’s puzzling stance on the state’s medical cannabis program on this blog before – but it seemed like tensions between the paper and the man in charge of the program really boiled over on the paper’s Aug. 9 editorial page.
Did you see it?
In a guest opinion column called “Pot Program? Just Trust Us,” New Mexico Secretary of Health Dr. Alfredo Vigil directed some choice words at the paper’s editors in the wake of the paper’s increasingly strident stream of stories and editorials demanding more disclosure and transparency from the state-administered medical program.
With bipartisan support, the New Mexico Legislature approved the compassionate use of medical marijuana back in 2007 and has been slowly phasing in the program ever since. New Mexico is now among a number of states who have approved use of the drug to alleviate symptoms in people suffering from diseases such as cancer and glaucoma – and many other states are considering it.
In the past, Journal has said it supports New Mexico’s medical cannabis program, but it has been hard to discern that support lately.
For Dr. Vigil and others who administer or support the program, the last straw was an Aug. 5 Journal editorial called “Why The Paranoia Over The State’s Pot Program?” in which the paper’s editors excoriate the program for what the Journal deems an unnecessary and disturbing “secrecy culture.” The editorial was in response to a news story (or perhaps it was a commentary – I’m never sure with those UpFront pieces) headlined “New Mexico Pot Program Shrouded in Secrecy,” by investigative reporter Thom Cole that ran on Aug. 4.
From Dr. Vigil’s guest column:
The premise of the Journal’s interest is that there might be a bunch of “Dr. Feelgood” types who are hijacking the medical marijuana program for personal gain. The reporter and editors apparently doesn’t trust the New Mexico Medical Board to perform its responsibility of monitoring the work of the state’s physicians and have decided to take the job on themselves. After all, who better to police physicians than opinionated newspaper columnists and editors?
The Journal makes the feeble claim that its justification is transparency in government, overlooking the fact that its interest is in revealing the doctors and the medical decisions that are being made. What does outing physicians who are trying to relieve the suffering of their patients have to do with keeping government honest?
I contacted Dr. Vigil for an interview on Aug. 9, mostly because I wanted to know his opinion about what I thought was the horribly flip and even insulting headline the Journal put on his column.
To be sure, Dr. Vigil said, it was not the headline he suggested when he submitted the piece and he admitted to being “a little disappointed” in how it came out. But, Dr. Vigil added, the fact that the Journal gave his piece prominent play and paired it with a large (also insulting, in my view, and to a lesser extent, his) editorial cartoon actually caused more people to read it than any other piece he’d authored for the paper.
“They’ve actually done us a favor in some respects by giving us an opportunity to respond. We get inquiries about our program from all over the country because of all the publicity, most of which comes through the Journal. The feedback we get has been mostly positive, with people saying they are impressed with how we are handling the problems that have come up.”
But meeting such vitriol (my word) from the paper has got to be disheartening for Dr. Vigil, who told me he’s been working with the Journal’s editorial board for years to try to answer their questions and concerns and convince them that the identities of the doctors, suppliers and patients in the program must be protected for their safety and for the success of the program.
“I’ve gone over there about three times. I try to go once a year and sit down and talk about whatever they want to talk about.”
Although the state health department administers many other programs, the topic of medical marijuana always comes up, Dr. Vigil said. In the end, they always end up agreeing to disagree, he said.
“I’ve even asked them before, `What do you want?’ When they talk about the secrecy and confidentiality, I remind them that it’s a medical program. They keep saying it’s about transparency in government and I say its about patients and doctors – and they aren’t the government. These are patients – people who are already under very tough circumstances – and it’s all part of the package, part of the puzzle.”
In all, Dr. Vigil said, the Journal’s position regarding the state’s medical cannabis program – especially recently – has been “puzzling” and “less than consistent.”
The paper’s editors seem to discount the idea that the program must balance medical and legal rights with the rights of the state and the treatment of actual disease in actual people, not to mention navigating public relations and the political winds of change, Dr. Vigil said.
“This program has never existed in this state before and we are trying to implement it carefully and methodically. If it looks like we are bumbling around and making mistakes, then we admit that we are not going to be perfect right out of the box.”
“The bottom line is, it’s a medical program. It’s not some straightforward, easy thing.”
Stay tuned – because I have a feeling this battle’s not over.