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NM officials face cannabis crunch time

Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – After navigating political minefields and popping champagne corks, New Mexico officials now face the daunting task of trying to create a regulatory and oversight framework for a new legal cannabis industry in a matter of months.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham acknowledged in a recent interview that there’s a “mountain” of work to be done to prepare for commercial sales to start by no later than April 2022, under a legalization bill approved by lawmakers during a two-day special session that ended March 31.

That includes creating a new advisory committee, conducting a market analysis focused on other states that have enacted cannabis legalization laws and readying for marijuana production license applications to start being filed in September.

“We have to start getting our producers, growers and farmers ready to go right now,” said the Democratic governor, who is expected to sign the cannabis legalization bill into law in the coming days.

While New Mexico’s newest industry won’t be full-fledged for another year, the state’s new stance on pot could start being felt by as soon as this summer.

That’s because possession and use of cannabis for those age 21 and older would become legal June 29 under the bill lawmakers passed during a recent special session, assuming the governor signs it.

New Mexico adults would also be able to start growing up to six mature cannabis plants for personal consumption without a license on that date.

Linda Trujillo, superintendent of the state Regulation and Licensing Department (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

That gray area of allowing pot possession – but not legal sales – for up to eight months could pose a “little bit of an issue,” said Linda Trujillo, superintendent of the state Regulation and Licensing Department, which is tasked with overseeing and implementing much of the proposed cannabis legalization law.

She said the agency is already looking into legal issues about cannabis being transported across state lines, among other concerns.

In addition, the Regulation and Licensing Department is working to line up a study that would be focused on other states’ retail sales and other data. That study could then be used to set possible plant count limits for producers once the weed industry is up and running.

And the agency already has a website set up with key dates and other information for its fledgling Cannabis Control Division.

“We’re on a really short timeline,” Trujillo told the Journal.

Local control limited

Unlike in some other states that have legalized recreational cannabis for adult users, New Mexico cities and counties would not be able to opt out of the state’s weed industry.

However, local governments would be able to “reasonably” limit the density of cannabis licenses and the operating hours of dispensaries, under the approved bill.

That authority would allow cities and counties to avoid the “green mile” phenomenon of multiple cannabis retail stores near one another, Trujillo said.

But she said cities and counties would have to justify such restrictions and could not use them to simply bar cannabis dispensaries or producers from setting up shop.

“They can’t make it so strict that nobody can open up retail or production,” she said.

Hobbs Mayor Sam Cobb, whose city is just six miles from the Texas line, said he and other officials have ample concerns about cannabis legalization.

“We’re going to have a lot of people coming from out of state, especially Texas, and that’s going to add to the issues,” said Cobb, who alluded to driving while under the influence of marijuana as chief among his concerns.

Head start on growing

New Mexico’s soon-to-be-enacted cannabis legalization law will give manufacturers and producers – and smaller “micro-business” producers – the chance to start growing several months before sales begin.

Ben Lewinger, the executive director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, called that provision positive and said it could allow for a sufficient supply of cannabis products for both recreational users and medical pot patients once the new industry fully opens.

“There should be a head start to ensure that when we open up the floodgates in April there have already been a couple harvests,” Lewinger told the Journal.

Trujillo, a former state legislator who was recently appointed as superintendent of the Regulation and Licensing Department by Lujan Grisham, said licensing applications will be considered public documents under the state’s Inspection of Public Records Act.

“There’s nothing in this act that makes licensing confidential,” she told the Journal.

However, she said that, as with New Mexico alcohol sales, no database of retail purchasers will be kept. Customers will have to provide proof of legal age to make purchases, though.

For her part, Lujan Grisham has said she envisions New Mexico’s industry ending up as a national model.

After a year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed the lives of nearly 4,000 New Mexicans and disrupted the state’s economy, the governor said, the timing of the new cannabis legalization could provide the state with a much-needed dose of optimism.

“We’re all still feeling like we’ve been shell-shocked,” the governor said. “People need something to hang on to and believe in.”

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