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Editorial: Growing pains – ABQ striking right balance with reasonable zoning plan for recreational pot shops

After a hundred years of being an illegal substance in much of America (and still illegal in the eyes of the federal government), cannabis is on the verge of being sold in retail shops throughout New Mexico.

The question is whether those shops should face few restrictions – similar to Starbucks coffee shops – or see more restrictive zoning – say along the lines of liquor stores.

We prefer the latter approach.

City councils and county commissions across the state are charged with implementing the new state Cannabis Regulation Act, including where retail outlets can be located and what hours they can be open.

Complicating matters in the metro area is the fact Albuquerque can only go into its master zoning document, aka the Integrated Development Ordinance, once a year and that process is ongoing right now. The city is under the gun to come up with zoning for this new industry before it is slated to open, which the act dictates is prior to next April.

Cannabis supporters insist zoning rules for these new retail shops should be no more restrictive than those for coffee shops – after all, there are minimal zoning restrictions for current medical cannabis clinics.

Albuquerque’s Mayor Tim Keller disagreed, and his team initially proposed zoning restrictions that would have prohibited new cannabis shops from large swaths of areas near Central Avenue and several other “Main Street” corridors.

After much discussion with industry and community leaders alike, the administration is now looking at a proposal that strikes a smart balance for cannabis sellers and nearby residents.

And it seems to treat marijuana more like liquor than coffee, which makes sense.

The legal age to buy alcohol in New Mexico is 21, and state law mandates “a licensed liquor establishment be no closer than three hundred feet from any church or school.” Similarly, the CRA will allow adults 21 and over to buy up to 2 ounces of marijuana at a time. It does not allow retail sales within 330 feet of schools and day care centers.

But it’s up to the City Council to decide other details, which could happen as soon as Monday.

Mike Puelle, the mayor’s chief of staff, says the administration’s proposal is aimed at preventing a “green mile,” like in Trinidad, Colorado, and to be more like Durango, Colo.

Trinidad, a small town of only 9,000 people, has close to 30 dispensaries. Durango’s retail marijuana ordinance, which states it should be construed “to protect the interests of the public over marijuana business interests,” requires pot shops to be a quarter-mile from schools, child care facilities, addiction recovery facilities and public parks with children’s playground equipment. Durango also prohibits cannabis social clubs and marijuana cultivation and manufacturing facilities within its city limits.

As of Wednesday, the mayor’s proposal for Albuquerque would:

• Prohibit cannabis dispensaries on the five roads designated as “Main Streets,” which include much of Central Avenue and parts of Fourth, Broadway, San Pedro and Bridge, where considerable public money has been spent on revitalization.

• Allow cannabis storefronts on side streets from those main streets (the mayor’s original proposal would have barred them for 660 feet off the main drag).

• Require any cannabis dispensary proposed within 300 feet of a residential mixed-use zone to get “conditional use” approval through a public hearing.

• Require 1,000 feet between cannabis retail businesses.

• Limit hours of operation to 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

• Prohibit off-premise signs (i.e. ones up against the roadway). State law allows signs of any size on the actual buildings.

It’s worth noting that city officials say all of the 47 or so current medical cannabis dispensaries in Albuquerque will be grandfathered in, even when they become a recreational cannabis retail site. That means those 47 shops – owned by 21 different companies – will remain regardless of what zoning is put in place.

New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce executive director Ben Lewinger says “it seems like we’re moving backward in the stigmatization of cannabis” and that cannabis shops should be treated the same as Starbucks.

But still in the set-up phase, the recreational cannabis industry has yet to prove over the long term it can coexist with neighborhoods without creating or somehow mitigating nuisances like loitering, public impairment and panhandling – the common complaints from residents who live near places that sell booze.

Lewinger’s sentiment ignores that cannabis is an adult product, not a mocha latte.

Keller’s modified proposal better balances industry concerns while continuing to protect neighborhoods and children, as well as high-tourism areas aimed at drawing families.

Let’s face it, many people do not want pot shops in their towns, especially in clusters that could overwhelm and transform their neighborhoods. The challenge is heeding their concerns while following state law and fostering growth of the nascent recreational cannabis industry.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.





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