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21st Century Paperwork Marks New Era for Ancient Medicine

The times, they are-a-changin'.

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New Mexico naturopath and traditional curandera (healer) Esmerelda Martinez was 19 before she realized that her grandmother’s famous tinctures were cannabis based. “When I was a girl and we visited the family ranch down in Sinaloa (Mexico), I knew she was a healer: we’d see ranchers ride in from hundreds of miles in all directions for her medicine, which she cooked up in the kitchen. She just called her main tincture ingredient ‘la hierba buena’: the good herb. Once I realized what it was and she saw that I was going to be a healer too, she began teaching me her recipes.”

Fast forward three decades, and now the 50-something Martinez, after studying modern herbalism in Santa Fe, finds herself helping patients – including “a lot of veterans” – navigate New Mexico’s medical cannabis program. 

Welcome to herbal medicine at the beginning of the Drug Peace Era. “It is strange to be teaching how to deal with paperwork so that someone with PTSD, cancer, a war injury or severe arthritis can have access to a medicine that my grandmother used to make without electricity or running water,” Martinez told me when we met in a south central New Mexico enchilada joint. “She lived to be 89, by the way.”

New Mexico’s medical cannabis program, though an unmitigated success, does require more of a paper trail than some sate programs. It also requires annual renewal via a doctor. “I start sending out reminders to my patients two months in advance,” she said.

Martinez, though, because her tinctures reside in a legal gray area for now, has to be found by word of mouth. “This is kind of ridiculous, to feel I have to be low key about my practice, but it’s not to protect me. It’s to protect patients who are Border Patrol agents and veterans whose insurance is at risk until federal prohibition ends,” she told me.

Lives are at stake, so this is the line this healer with 30 years’ experience is walking. If she advised getting scripts for pain opiates instead of freeing people from them, she’d be able to underwrite public radio shows. 

Joining us for local grub this day was a woman on the younger side of middle age named Maria. She was consulting with Esmerelda about whether to officially join the New Mexico medicinal cannabis program to treat her second incidence of melanoma. She showed me the scar on her cheek from recent surgery.

“I can’t believe I have to worry about legal ramifications when I’m looking for medicine to make sure I stay well,” Maria told me. “I mean on the federal level.”

Maria’s point carries particular weight in the American Southwest. To say that both social and medicinal cannabis is embedded in New Mexico culture is like saying the Red Sox have a place in Bostonian hearts. To give just one piece of evidence, Len Goodman of Santa Fe-based state-licensed provider New Mexicann says that his monthly orders drop by half at traditional Land of Enchantment harvest season in October. In other words, folks are growing their own medicine when they can, just as they always have. Indeed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican/American War in 1848 guaranteed the “inviolabl(e) respect” of former Mexican (now U.S.) citizens’ traditions and rights. 

“I have no choice but to help people wade through the bureaucracy,” Esmerelda told me. “That’s part of being a curandera now. But oh, it will be so much easier when federal prohibition is behind us and my patients don’t have to worry about things like Border Patrol checkpoints.” (New Mexico-based Border Patrol checkpoints have been largely honoring state medical cannabis paperwork, incidentally, but it’s still a stressful situation for patients.)

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