SANTA FE – In every city, the location of shops, houses and manufacturing are all carefully planned out. A city’s zoning helps determine its look and function, and now, with New Mexico’s cannabis legalization, where dispensaries fit into this mix is being determined.
The city of Santa Fe and Santa Fe County have been working on creating zoning ordinances to help pave the way for dispensaries and cannabis consumption areas that will begin popping up within a year.
The city is currently reviewing regulations for cannabis shops, but hasn’t passed anything at this time. The city council heard a preliminary presentation on zoning at its most recent meeting in early July, and is slated to approve recommendations Aug. 25.
Noah Berke, planner manager for the city, said the city has been issuing zoning approvals for medical cannabis for several years and can apply many of the same rules toward recreational cannabis. The city is anticipating zoning code changes by October, but in the interim can use existing medical provisions for producer permitting, which is slated to begin statewide on Sept. 1.
Recreational cannabis dispensaries will likely fall under existing retail use zoning and the city will expand the definition of “retail establishments” to include cannabis, he said. For consumption areas, these rules will likely mimic bars.
“From what we have researched, and discussions with the state and other municipalities, Santa Fe is ahead of most other jurisdictions,” Berke said in an email. “We already have lots of provisions in our Zoning Code that regulate growing, manufacturing, apothecaries and retail uses.”
Ben Lewinger, executive director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, said dispensaries should be treated more like pharmacies than bars. He said the behavior around dispensaries is more akin to people shopping at a Walgreens than partying at a bar.
“Undoing prohibition is really hard,” he said. “I think the challenge is, how do we look beyond the stigma of cannabis?”
Emily Kaltenbach, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said it’s important for local governments to keep equity front and center in its policy making, including zoning. For example, making sure micro-businesses have equal opportunities with larger businesses.
She said there should be a level playing field between existing medical cannabis licensees and new businesses. Zoning should also ensure dispensaries aren’t all located in low-income communities.
Part of the discussions surrounding zoning have included comparisons to Trinidad, Colorado. In Trinidad, there are multiple cannabis dispensaries along Interstate 25 and surrounding areas as people enter and exit town. In Durango, Colorado, dispensaries are scattered farther apart throughout the town, primarily on side streets.
“As you get closer to the border entering Trinidad, you start seeing huge billboards. There are dispensaries everywhere.” Lewinger said. “Compared to Durango, which possibly as a result of better zoning, it’s not as overwhelming for people who object to cannabis.”
Lewinger said he doesn’t foresee this type of zoning occurring in Santa Fe, Albuquerque or anywhere in New Mexico due to increased legalization in the United States.
When it comes to zoning, he said the only thing that really needs to be paid attention to is outlet density – or how close cannabis dispensaries can be to one another. This helps ensure businesses can remain competitive, and helps places look more like Durango and less like Trinidad.
In Santa Fe County, the proposed ordinance would prevent cannabis establishments from being closer than 200 feet from each other. In addition, the establishments must be at least 300 feet from schools and day care centers – as mandated by state law.
Previously, the county was discussing only allowing personal cannabis growth indoors — prompting several commissioners to voice concerns because they said they thought it was unnecessarily restrictive.
“I made one of the changes that I felt was really important, (namely) that personal use be allowed to grow outside in their backyard,” Commissioner Anna Hansen said. “To me, that was really important.”
She said some people might want to grow only two plants in their backyard, which is simpler than having to set up lights and other equipment for indoor growing. At the Santa Fe County Commission meeting July 13, commissioners discussed how indoor personal growing could potentially be cost-prohibitive for some people.
Since that meeting, county staff said the nuisance code should prevent people from creating too much odor from cannabis growth. Hansen said it’s important to remember the county is a much larger area than the city, and people live on larger lots, so she doesn’t foresee odor being an issue.
“I think we are a progressive county and we are also a traditional, historic county,” she said. “I think there are going to be different impacts in different communities, and I think we’re just going to have to see how it evolves.”