December 30, 2021

Growing Forward: End of the year and looking onward

It’s been nearly eight months since New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the Cannabis Regulation Act and cannabis sales are expected to start in about four more months. 

Throughout this year, Growing Forward, the collaborative podcast between NM Political Report and New Mexico PBS, has been following the progress of both applicants and state regulators and highlighting issues that have arised since April. 

In the last episode of the 2021 and the podcast’s third season, Growing Forward takes a look at one major issue that surrounds almost all aspects of life in New Mexico: water. 

Growing Forward spoke with John Romero with the Office of the State Engineer’s Water Allocation Program. While lawmakers debated legalization earlier this year, many raised concerns over how much water the new industry would use. Romero said the exact amount is still unknown because “it’s still relatively new to us and it’s pretty new nationwide,” but that some studies have shown “it’s right around six gallons per plant, per day, for the growing season.”

Securing legal access to water is one of the requirements to obtain a cannabis business license and, in some parts of the state, that means securing water rights. And for Romero and his team, that means a batch of requests from the state’s Cannabis Control Division to verify applicants have legal access to water rights. And that, Romero said, adds work to a department with a budget that is already stretched thin. 

“This has created an extra workload or additional workload for our agency, because we’re having to review these permits that come in for the water rights aspect, for the validity, and we’ve received at least about 30 of them so far,” Romero said. “To us, it’s kind of like an unfunded mandate.”

But, Romero said, it’s not just about the budget. He said it can also be hard to find staff that are knowledgeable about water rights and have the right qualifications. 

“It’s hard to find qualified candidates and then sometimes people have their degree in engineering or hydrology but we don’t pay enough. So, it’s hard to attract those people,” Romero said. 

As part of the year-end wrap-up episode, Growing Forward also caught up with the newly hired Cannabis Control Division Director Kristen Thomson. Thomson comes from the cannabis lobbying world, but told Growing Forward that she has cut ties with all of her former clients to avoid the perception of favoritism if they apply for a cannabis business license in New Mexico.    

“I severed all ties with any of my former employers or lobby clients, including selling of stock, so as not to have any notion of impropriety,” Thomson said. 

Some producers have expressed concern over how long it might take to get licensed. Most agree that it takes at least four months to grow a crop of cannabis and get it to the shelves. At least two current medical cannabis producers have said they are worried the state is headed for a cannabis shortage, which could leave tens of thousands of medical cannabis patients without medicine.  But Thomson remains optimistic about supply and getting licenses issued in time for sales to start next spring. 

“We don’t anticipate shortages at this juncture,” Thomson said. “We see that people are excited about growing and we want to make sure that they have that time and that the labs have the time to get the product tested before the first sale is made.”

The full Growing Forward episode can be found below.