ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Rachael Speegle, 34, left a full-time job as a critical care nurse last year to work at an Albuquerque medical marijuana dispensary and growing operation started by her husband.
Speegle quickly discovered that people who came to the Verdes Foundation dispensary in Albuquerque had lots of questions that called for her nursing skills.
“Their questions were so simple,” she said. For example: “How do I talk to my doctor about this? Why does my nausea feel better when I smoke it than when I eat it?”
Verdes is one of 13 licensed nonprofit producers that operate 16 dispensaries in Bernalillo County. Statewide, 23 licensed producers operate 37 dispensaries in 16 counties.
That number is certain to grow in coming months as existing licensed producers, including the Verdes Foundation, open new locations. In addition, 12 nonprofits licensed by the New Mexico Department of Health last year are setting up new growing facilities and dispensaries around the state.
Dispensaries also are starting to operate more like ordinary businesses. Many make their names and logos visible on major commercial streets and shopping centers. Patients don’t need to press a buzzer and stare down a security guard to enter the Verdes Foundation dispensary, and they can bring their children and pets inside.
“We want people to feel comfortable, like they’re going to Walgreens,” Speegle said.
Dispensaries and growing operations also are becoming significant employers that paid $3 million in salaries and other compensation in the first quarter of this year, up from $2.3 million during the same period in 2015.
“We’re all trying to get our production facilities up and running,” said David C. Romero White, president of Organtica, one of the 12 nonprofits licensed last year.
The startup process for new cannabis-growing operations and dispensaries is difficult and time-consuming, even for Romero White, who has years of experience working for other nonprofit producers.
“It’s very tough – especially for the producers who are outside the Albuquerque market – and a little slow,” he said.
Organtica plans to have open a growing facility in August and a flagship dispensary by October, both in Albuquerque. The nonprofit also plans to open an undetermined number of dispensaries in communities outside Albuquerque.
The medical cannabis market has expanded rapidly in New Mexico over the past year.
The number of licensed patients who legally purchased medical pot more than tripled, from 18,062 in the first quarter of 2015 to 55,016 in the same period this year.
Total receipts from sales of medical pot nearly doubled in that time, from $5.7 million in the first quarter of 2015 to $10 million in the first quarter this year.
Growers say they expect the rapid growth in demand to continue for the foreseeable future, due in part to greater acceptance of marijuana in New Mexico and across the U.S.
Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia, but several states have a higher penetration of medical cannabis patients than New Mexico.
For example, Colorado has about 19.8 medical cannabis patients per 1,000 residents, or nearly double New Mexico’s rate of 9.4 per 1,000, according to a March 1 report on ProCon.org, a website that tracks marijuana issues and trends.
Maine, Michigan, Oregon, Washington and California all have rates of 18 per 1,000 residents or higher. Those data suggest that the number of licensed patients here could grow substantially, Romero White said.
“Just as fast as it seems to be growing now, I think that the growth will continue at this pace,” he said.
Business at Verdes ramped up quickly when doctors began referring their patients, many of whom are older clients with little experience using medical marijuana, Speegle said.
“We started the nursing services as a practical decision, but it turned into one of the best business decisions we could have made,” she said. The nonprofit today employs 32, including two registered nurses in addition to Speegle.
Speegle said she expects that New Mexicans will consider a ballot item within two years to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Recreational use would not diminish the need for nursing services because people would continue to use cannabis to self-medicate, she said.
“The best thing about a recreational model is that people will be able to walk into a store and get what they need right now,” she said.
For Verdes Foundation, the challenge is growing enough cannabis to keep up with demand, given the state’s limit of 450 plants at one time per growing facility, said Speegle and husband, Eric Speegle.
Verdes expects demand to exceed the nonprofit’s production limits this summer, Eric Speegle said. To meet demand, Verdes plans to begin growing larger plants with bigger yields, he said.
“We signed up 23 new patients yesterday and I’m scared to death about what that means a month from now,” Rachael Speegle said the day after Memorial Day.
Another nonprofit planning to open a new dispensary this summer is PurLife, one of the 12 producers licensed last year.
PurLife is renovating leased retail space at 3821 Menaul NE, where it plans to open its first dispensary within 30 days, said Darren White, CEO of PurLife. The nonprofit began growing cannabis earlier this year at a 16,000-square-foot production facility in Albuquerque.
The former Bernalillo County sheriff, and state and Albuquerque public safety director – who resigned from the administration of Gov. Gary Johnson because he disagreed with Johnson’s support for legalizing marijuana – said he became a convert to medical cannabis about two years ago as an alternative to opioid painkillers to treat chronic pain from knee and back injuries he experienced as a police officer and U.S. Army soldier.
“A steady diet of consuming painkillers is not quality of life,” White said in an interview on May 27. “The narcotic painkillers, they knock you out.”