October 26, 2021

Growing Forward: Consumption areas

While the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department is working towards finalizing rules and regulations for cannabis businesses, local governments around the state are also doing some fine-tuning of their respective zoning laws. 

The state’s new Cannabis Regulation Act prohibits municipalities and counties from limiting things like the distance between a cannabis establishment and schools, but also allows those local governments some leeway in zoning ordinances. The City of Albuquerque for example was able to limit the density of cannabis establishments through its zoning plan. 

Most of the types of establishments cities and counties are taking into consideration had predecessors under the state’s medical cannabis law. But other types of businesses, like cannabis consumption areas, are a new concept to local governments. 

The Bernalillo County Zoning Commission, for example, recently approved a proposal that would ban outdoor cannabis consumption areas. The proposal still has to go through the Bernalillo County Board of Commissioners before it becomes official, but Erica Rowland has been front and center trying to educate officials on why indoor-only consumption lounges may not be a good idea. Rowland spoke against the proposal at the last zoning meeting and told Growing Forward, the collaborative podcast between NM Political Report and New Mexico PBS, that she aims to open a sort of cannabis country club.      

“What I’m looking for is really to embrace the cannabis lifestyle that we have become so accustomed to as being patients,” Rowland said. 

Rowland likened forcing cannabis consumption areas indoors to forcing users “back in the cannabis closet.”

The idea of cannabis consumption areas is not as new as many think. In 2019, the New Mexico Legislature made sweeping changes to the state’s medical cannabis law, including the addition of consumption areas. Originally designed only for medical cannabis patients, the 2019 law required the consumption areas be attached to an existing medical cannabis dispensary. 

Director of the Medical Cannabis Program Dr. Dominick Zurlo told Growing Forward that consumption areas never really took off, partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.  

“In talking with many of the producers who had been considering it previously, this really was a situation where timing with the COVID-19 pandemic really influenced what individuals were doing or what the organizations were doing with regard to it,” Zurlo said. 

Besides providing a safe place to use cannabis for those who rent homes where smoking is prohibited or those who live in government assisted housing where cannabis is banned completely, both Zurlo and Rowland agreed that consumption areas also provide a place to learn and connect socially. 

But the Regulation and Licensing Department still needs to shore up rules and regulations before consumption areas can be licensed for operation. 

Deputy Superintendent of Regulation and Licensing John Blair said the department is working towards licensing all cannabis establishments, including consumption areas. Blair said there is a dearth of examples to look at across the country though. 

“I don’t think we’re going to be the first ones to do it, but there are not a lot of examples across the country to look at,” Blair said. 

An added layer of regulation for consumption areas is the state’s law on smoking in general. Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, is a long-time healthcare advocate and a cosponsor of the Cannabis Regulation Act. She said she would like to see less smoking in general, but she’s also very familiar with how medical cannabis can help relieve symptoms of serious illnesses. Armstrong’s daughter Erin has battled cancer for years and was a driving force behind legalizing medical cannabis.

Armstrong said it would be hard to enforce a ban on outdoor cannabis smoking areas as the Bernalillo County Zoning Commission has recommended. 

“I think that gets kind of hard for enforcement. But, you can certainly limit, I suppose, where those designated areas are,” Armstrong said. “But, I’d like to see less smoking overall, period. Less tobacco use.”

You can hear more about consumption areas in New Mexico by listening to the latest episode of Growing Forward and you can find the link below.