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Still growing

A detail of a medical marijuana plant at Verdes, photographed on Tuesday May 31, 2016. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

While businesses continue to shutter and unemployment to grow amid coronavirus-related restrictions, activity in and around New Mexico’s growing medical cannabis industry seems to be ramping up.

New Mexico’s largest chain of medical cannabis dispensaries has announced its intention to dramatically scale up its operations with a new hiring push amid increased demand. Meanwhile, interest from would-be industry workers is also on the rise.

Red Barn Growers district manager Ellie Besancon stands in her Santa Fe shop. New Mexico’s medical cannabis industry is seeing an increase in activity – in jobs, job-seekers and patient demand. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Duke Rodriguez, president and CEO of Ultra Health, said the company plans to add 11 new locations by the end of the year. Ultra Health is also looking to hire 50 to 100 new employees per month in the near future as new dispensaries open, ultimately planning to bring on 1,000 new workers.

Rodriguez said the growth is partially in anticipation of the eventual legalization of recreational marijuana.

“Legalization is no longer a question, but a matter of timing,” he said.

Recreational marijuana has been a thorny topic in New Mexico for years, but Rodriguez said he believes the pandemic has made it significantly more likely for legalization to pass in the next 12 months.

The recent drop in oil prices means New Mexico has lost up to $2 billion in state revenue, according to some lawmakers. The health and economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic has prompted discussion about calling an emergency legislative session, though Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office has said she is unwilling to call legislators back to Santa Fe until it’s safe to do so.

Political insiders agree that if and when a special session is called this year, recreational marijuana legalization is a long shot.

Nora Meyers Sackett, press secretary for Lujan Grisham’s office, wrote in an email that she “wouldn’t say it’s likely” for legalization to appear on the agenda.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, a Santa Fe Democrat, said he would expect a special session to focus narrowly on the budget and pandemic response.

“I would be completely shocked if it appeared on the governor’s agenda,” he said.

While recreational marijuana remains on the horizon, medical dispensaries, which were designated as essential in New Mexico during the pandemic, are hiring to keep up with demand and worker churn.

Shanon Jaramillo, founder of Albuquerque-based Cannabis NM Staffing, said she has seen an increase in the number of people looking to go through her organization’s cannabis education and training program. Jaramillo attributed the uptick to layoffs in other industries and said her group is working to recruit laid-off workers in the hospitality industry, which accounts for more than 25% of new initial unemployment claims over the past month, according to state data. Some are patients themselves with health problems that have prompted them to leave their employers.

“We have people just coming out of the woodwork,” she said.

In response to increased demand for medical products, Cannabis NM Staffing has cut the cost of its core training program in half, and added pandemic-specific best practices.

The Red Barn Growers dispensary in Santa Fe is open but not allowing patients inside. New Mexico’s medical cannabis industry is seeing an increase in activity. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Meanwhile, medical dispensaries are adapting everyday practices for safety. Ellie Besancon, district manager for Red Barn Growers, a dispensary with locations in Gallup and Santa Fe, said her business has moved to only accepting pre-orders and has broken its employees into rotating shifts to reduce the contact they have with each other.

“This allows us to keep our team safe, our patients safe, and it allows us to keep doors open,” Besancon said.

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