Recreational cannabis industry sparks struggle for water rights in parched New Mexico

When New Mexico’s recreational cannabis bill was signed into law in April, Mike Hinkle and Ryan Timmermans jumped at the chance to get into the industry. The two business partners, both recent transplants from the South, bought portable buildings, seeds, grow lights and a property in the village of Carson, with a domestic well they thought they could use to irrigate their plants. In total, they invested more than $50,000. “That’s actually the most money I’ve ever had in my life,” Hinkle said. “I was extremely excited because we thought we had a shot.”

This story originally appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission.

Growing Forward: Cannabis testing

In two weeks, the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department, by law, must start accepting applications for non-medical cannabis cultivation licenses. But an often overlooked aspect of the cannabis industry is testing. 

The state Department of Health has long had a list of testing requirements for medical cannabis, but now that nearly all aspects of cannabis is overseen by a new department, lab operators like Barry Dungan of Rio Grande Analytics are anxiously waiting for new testing standards. Dungan began his career in cannabis testing after a stint as a researcher at New Mexico State University. He and his partners started Rio Grande Analytics in Las Cruces, but earlier this year, the company moved to Albuquerque to be more centrally located. 

Dungan told Growing Forward, the collaborative cannabis podcast between NM Political Report and New Mexico PBS, that he’s mostly still operating under the DOH rules, but that he needs advance notification of rule changes from RLD. 

“The stuff that we need to buy are things that are in state labs and crime labs and forensic labs,” Dungan said. “This isn’t, go to the used car lot and just get one.

Growing Forward: New Mexico’s Green Rush Part 2

About a month after New Mexico legalized cannabis use and possession, and about eight months until sanctioned sales are expected to start, there is little doubt that many New Mexican’s are eager to get a foothold in the state’s newest industry. 

The state’s Regulation and Licensing Department is still in the process of finalizing rules and regulations for cultivation licenses and is expected to impose further rules for testing standards, retail sales and consumption areas. But that hasn’t stopped some from preliminarily looking for warehouses or land to grow cannabis. Others looking to get into the cannabis industry have begun consulting businesses. 

Growing Forward, the collaborative podcast between New Mexico PBS and NM Political Report that looks at cannabis in New Mexico, spoke with several people hoping to get into the new industry earlier, rather than later. The day after the state’s Cannabis Regulation Act became official, P2M, a cannabis business consulting firm, hosted a legalization conference in Albuquerque. 

The company is made up of Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis, Matt Kennicott, who previously worked for former Gov. Susana Martinez and Patricia Mattioli, who has worked as a consultant for medical cannabis companies. 

Mattioli said there are numerous other parts of the cannabis industry that often go overlooked and that don’t need extra certification from RLD’s Cannabis Control Division.  

“You’ve got accountants, you’ve got insurance, you’ve got training,” Mattioli said. “So, the job creation that’ll go on for the next 10 years is huge.

Growing Forward: Green Rush Part 1

By law, the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department has about a month before it has to start accepting applications from businesses looking to enter the new, non-medical cannabis industry. The state’s Cannabis Regulation Act, which was signed into law in April, legalized the adult-use and possession of cannabis as well as home-cultivation. The new law also allows for commercial sales, but leaves much of the specifics up to rules and regulations. 

RLD has to start accepting applications for cannabis business licenses no later than Sept. 1 and start issuing licenses no later than Jan. 1, 2022.

State takes first steps to establish adult-use cannabis regulations

On the first day of legalized, recreational-use cannabis in New Mexico the department set to oversee the new industry held a rulemaking hearing. 

During the hearing, held by the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department and its Cannabis Control Division, a long list of stakeholders shared their concerns about water conservation, racial and social equity and transparency. But the public comment included nearly as many questions for the department as there were concerns. 

As New Mexico struggles with yet another drought this year, many who spoke at the meeting raised concerns about large cannabis companies adding to the state’s ongoing water problems. 

Alejandría Lyons, the environmental justice organizer with the Southwest Organizing Project said she and the organization want to see more water-use oversight to protect the generations-old family farms across the state. 

“We worry about our acequias, we worry about our farmers who have already been asked not to water, to fallow their fields,” Lyons said. “And more importantly, we are very worried about the oversight. The Office of the State Engineer is already at capacity, and we fear that we need higher regulation to prevent illegal water use, especially in a drought year, as we’re seeing right now.”

Jaimie Park, the policy coordinator and staff attorney for the New Mexico Acequia Association said that although the Cannabis Regulation Act details water requirements like showing proof of access to water or water rights, she and the association would like to see deliberate rules regarding legal access to water. 

“It’s really important that the regulatory language mirror the statutory language so that this important water protection mandate is lawfully and meaningfully implemented through these draft rules,” Park said. 

Park added that she and the association submitted written comments with suggestions that RLD and the Cannabis Control Division add stringent water reporting requirements for cannabis cultivators. 

One of the major selling points during the special legislative session that resulted in the newly effective Cannabis Regulation Act was social justice and equity. The bill’s sponsors argued that legalization should also include a minimally restrictive path for New Mexicans to enter the industry.

Gary Johnson reacts to Legislature passing cannabis legalization bill

Pending a signature from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico is set to become the latest state to fully legalize cannabis. And while the state has received an abundance of national attention for the feat, some may have forgotten or overlooked the national attention a former governor garnered more than two decades ago for his, then-controversial, stance that cannabis should be legalized. 

In the late 1990s, then-Gov. Gary Johnson, at the time a Republican, made national headlines for advocating for full legalization of cannabis, nearly seven years before the state would legalize medical-use cannabis and more than a decade before Colorado became the first state to legalize recreational-use cannabis. 

Since leaving office after his second term as governor, Johnson twice ran for president and once for U.S. Senate as a Libertarian. 

Johnson told NM Political Report that he’s not one to say, “I told you so,” but that he is proud of being an early advocate for full legalization. “I do take pride, and I would not mind my obituary, if anybody runs it, saying that ‘This was the highest elected official in the country to call for marijuana legalization for about 15 years,’” he said. “I mean, I think I held that title for about 15 years.”

Lujan Grisham called for a special session, in part, to legalize adult-use cannabis and expunge prior cannabis related criminal records. 

Much of the criticism from Republicans during the special session was that New Mexico is just not ready to legalize. But others, namely Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, argued that specifics of the cannabis industry should be left to the free market and not overly regulated by the state.

Legislature sends expungement bill to governor’s desk

A bill to expunge cannabis-related criminal offenses that would no longer be illegal if cannabis is legalized is headed to the governor’s desk. The effort began with 11 amendments in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, which the committee later adopted as a committee substitute, and another on the Senate floor, a speedy move through the special legislative session. The Senate passed the bill on a 23-13 vote after about one hour of discussion early Wednesday afternoon. The House later passed the bill on a 41-28 vote after over an hour and a half of debate. The bill aims to automatically expunge the criminal offenses, under the state’s expungement law, that would no longer be illegal under cannabis legalization which was being debated by the Senate.

Expungement bill passes Senate committee

A Senate committee passed a heavily amended piece of legislation to expunge the criminal records of those convicted of cannabis-related crimes that would no longer be crimes under the proposed cannabis legalization bill working its way through the special session. The bill would provide for automatic expungement of cannabis related offenses that would no longer be illegal under the new law. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-3 to pass the bill after hours of technical discussion on language and a series of amendments to clarify the law. “I think a critical part of our state moving forward with the cannabis legislation is making sure that folks who have been convicted or arrested or dealt with the fallout of offenses that were based on actions that in the cannabis regulation act passes will no longer be crimes aren’t suffering the negative impacts of that,” Sen. Katy Duhigg, an Albuquerque Democrat who is one of five sponsors of the bill, said. Among the numerous amendments adopted in the committee were to remove the role of the Attorney General in reviewing cases of those incarcerated to have the cannabis-related portions of their convictions removed from their conviction and one that would clarify that only the portions of records related to cannabis would be removed from the record.

More contentious debates over cannabis legalization expected during the special session

The New Mexico Legislature is slated to start a special session Tuesday to address economic development and full cannabis legalization. But there is still a question of how much support cannabis legalization will garner from both Republicans and Democrats. 

About an hour after the regular 2021 legislative session ended, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, flanked by Democratic legislative leaders in a news conference, announced that she would call legislators back for a special session to pick up where they left off with recreational-use cannabis legalization. The session started out with five legalization bills, but by the last week there was only one proposal: HB 12. Sponsored by Democratic Reps. Javier Martínez of Albuquerque and Andrea Romero of Santa Fe, HB 12 quickly became the favored bill for many Democrats, but hit a rough patch as it passed the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Criminal cannabis operations that took root in Navajo Nation could pop up in other Indigenous communities

Last year, Dineh Benally, the former president of San Juan River Farm Board in the Navajo Nation, oversaw the transformation of 400 acres of cropland into illegal marijuana farms across the Shiprock chapter in the northeast corner of the reservation. Despite a state, federal and tribal crackdown on the operation, multiple sources told Searchlight New Mexico and High Country News that he is attempting to establish new cannabis ventures in other Native communities. A source confirmed the same to Navajo Times. This story was originally published in Searchlight New Mexico and High Country News and is republished with permission. Since the November raids, Navajo Nation Police Chief Philip Francisco told Searchlight New Mexico and High Country News that law enforcement did not know Benally’s whereabouts and presumed he was in hiding.