HIGH HOPES: Ready or not, NM launches cannabis sales - Albuquerque Journal

HIGH HOPES: Ready or not, NM launches cannabis sales

Jose Ruiz of Red Barn Growers holds a tray of a cannabis strain called Mandarin Cookies at their Santa Fe dispensary this week. New Mexico is officially launching recreational cannabis sales Friday after state lawmakers approved a 2021 legalization bill. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico will become the 17th state to launch legal cannabis retail sales Friday, when dispensaries from Farmington to Hobbs begin selling marijuana flowers, edibles and other products to adults age 21 and older.

The start of commercial sales comes after a multi-year political struggle – and 353 days after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a legalization bill into law.

The Democratic governor said Thursday that New Mexico was better positioned to launch its new cannabis industry than other western states like Arizona and Nevada, with roughly 250 licensed retail locations statewide, 52 licensed producers, 57 “micro” producers who can cultivate smaller amounts and 16 manufacturers.

“It looks to me we’re as prepared as you can be,” Lujan Grisham told the Journal.

She also said she planned to be out meeting and congratulating some cannabis retailers on the state’s opening day of commercial sales, but said she would not be making any personal purchases.

“Let’s leave the product on the shelves for other people,” the governor said.

New Mexico has had a medical cannabis program since 2007, but attempts to legalize recreational marijuana and tax its sales were unsuccessful at the Roundhouse until the Democratic-controlled Legislature approved a bill last year.

Backers of the legalization law say it could create thousands of new jobs, diversify New Mexico’s economy and bolster the state as a tourist destination, especially with neighboring Texas unlikely to legalize marijuana in the near future.

Kristen Thomson, the director of the state’s Cannabis Control Division, said New Mexico has taken notes from other states’ experiences rolling out cannabis retail sales.

Specifically, she cited the state’s packaging and labeling rules, along with an increased maximum plant count for larger cannabis producers, as policies intended to avoid trouble spots in other states.

“We’ve done everything we can to ensure everything goes smoothly,” Thomson said.

Thomson and other state officials have acknowledged there could be cannabis shortages in the opening days of the state’s new industry, though she has maintained such shortages would only be a short-term issue.

The likelihood of cannabis shortages has prompted concern among some medical cannabis patients, who use marijuana to treat ailments ranging from cancer to severe chronic pain.

Some licensed dispensaries plan to give priority to medical cannabis patients, while others plan to serve customers on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Exuberant outlooks

Within the cannabis industry, a sense of excitement has been building toward the first day of legal sales.

Ellie Besancon, the executive director of Red Barn Growers, said she’s expecting a wide range of customers, from elderly state residents to longtime cannabis users who might have previously bought marijuana on the black market.

Jars of cannabis flowers are ready for purchase at Red Barn Growers in Santa Fe. Ellie Besancon, executive director of the dispensary, says she’s expecting a wide range of customers, from elderly state residents to longtime cannabis users who bought on the black market. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

She said her cannabis company – which now runs dispensaries in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Gallup and Las Cruces – added a second cultivation site last year in order to grow more cannabis plants.

They have also purchased some cannabis products from wholesalers in an attempt to avoid shortages during the initial weeks of retail sales.

“I think that I’m going to be in good shape, but I don’t know for sure,” Besancon told the Journal. “We want to make sure that people who haven’t engaged or been involved (with cannabis products) in decades come in and feel comfortable.”

Besancon, who has a background in corporate marketing, rose up quickly in the cannabis industry after starting as a part-time budtender, or cannabis salesperson, several years ago at a medical cannabis dispensary.

She said the lure of legalization is also attracting other young professionals to enter the industry, adding, “I just feel like this is the green gold rush.”

Meanwhile, under New Mexico’s legalization law, it’s up to cities and counties to make zoning decisions and set allowable hours of operation for cannabis dispensaries.

Some cities, like Las Cruces, have not established such time limits, meaning cannabis dispensaries in the state’s second-largest city will be able to open just after midnight tonight.

Concerns abound

The buzz surrounding New Mexico’s new cannabis industry is not entirely positive, however.

Some local government officials around the state expressed concern about a possible uptick in impaired driving and other cannabis-related crimes.

Luke Niforatos, the executive vice president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a Colorado-based group, said New Mexico’s launch of commercial cannabis sales could lead to an increase in high-school dropout rates and fatal traffic accidents.

 

“Today’s pot is not Woodstock Weed,” Niforatos said. “As retail sales launch in New Mexico, the marijuana industry is focused on and concerned about one thing: profit. And profit comes by encouraging the use of their dangerous, high-potency products.”

But state officials insist legalization will be a net positive for New Mexico, and say they plan to closely scrutinize the new industry’s various impacts going forward.

Some policymakers have also highlighted legalization as a social justice issue, as a state law allows people with past cannabis convictions to enter the industry.

In addition, a bill approved by lawmakers in 2021 calls for criminal records related to cannabis possession or consumption to be automatically expunged, though judicial branch officials are still reviewing records to make that happen.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., lauded the state’s move to legalize recreational cannabis on Thursday, saying on social media it represented an “important first step forward in ending the war on drugs.”

For her part, Thomson acknowledged it’s unlikely legalization will completely eliminate the black market for cannabis, but said it would reduce illicit sales.

She also said it’s likely New Mexico legislators and regulators will have to make changes to the laws governing cannabis sales and usage in the coming years, as other states have done, but described the state as ready to launch after nearly a year of planning.

“I absolutely believe the industry is ready to go,” Thomson said. “They’re chomping at the bit.”

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