Recreational-use cannabis dispensaries in New Mexico are slated to open their doors in about five months, if not sooner. Medical cannabis dispensaries, many of which have been in operation for years, may end up feeling the brunt of an expected run on cannabis products next year, but legacy cannabis cultivators could have an advantage over those who are still in the queue, waiting for their applications to be approved.
While the applicants currently waiting for approval cannot start growing or manufacturing cannabis, medical cannabis cultivation companies that have been licensed for years can start ramping up production in anticipation for next year.
Some of those businesses that are awaiting approval have also, over the years, been waiting for a chance to break into the medical cannabis industry, but were repeatedly told the state was not accepting applications for medical cannabis production, a term New Mexico regulators use for cultivation. The more than two dozen producers who have historically produced medical cannabis are often colloquially referred to as “legacy producers.” But for one producer, the term “legacy” is somewhat of a misnomer. Generation Health, along with 33 other medical cannabis producers, got a fast track through the recreational-use licensing process. The idea was that since the legacy producers were due for license renewals over the summer, they would be re-licensed through the Regulation and Licensing Department, which largely took over cannabis regulatory duties from the state’s Department of Health after the Cannabis Regulation Act went into effect on June 29, 2021.
But Generation Health had only been licensed as a medical cannabis producer for about 24 hours before that jurisdictional switch happened.
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.
New Mexico medical cannabis producers that intend to continue doing business after commercial cannabis sales begin next year will not be required to renew their license this summer, according to state officials.
The state’s Department of Health and the Regulation and Licensing Department said in a letter that current medical cannabis producers can forgo the relicensing process that normally takes place during the summer months and wait to submit a request for licensure through Regulation and Licensing.
The grace period for current producers is part of a transition of cannabis sales oversight. Since the inception of the state’s Medical Cannabis Program almost 15 years ago, the program has been run by DOH. But after June 29 nearly all aspects of cannabis sales, both recreational and medical use, will be overseen by RLD, with the exceptions of medical cannabis patient registry and medical cannabis patient purchase limits.
Medical Cannabis Program Director Dominick Zurlo said in a statement that the grace period is aimed at saving current producers time and energy.
“It makes the most sense to spare the Medical Cannabis Program’s licensed non-profit producers to not have to renew their non-profit renewal paperwork when in the weeks and months ahead, they have to prepare and submit their required administrative paperwork to be licensed to sell cannabis to the general public,” Zurlo said.
The newly established Cannabis Control Division, under RLD, is required by statute to set up an advisory board that will have a role in promulgating rules and regulations for cannabis sales no later than Sept. 1 of this year. The Cannabis Control Division must also promulgate those rules and regulations by Sept.
Medical cannabis patients from other states will have to wait until they can purchase or use their medicine in New Mexico.
Even though medical cannabis reciprocity is written in state law and rules and regulation, the head of New Mexico’s program told NM Political Report that medical cannabis producers will not be able to sell to out of state patients until July.
Dr. Dominick Zurlo, the Medical Cannabis Program director, confirmed that the state’s Department of Health Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel has signed off on a rule change that outlines rules for reciprocal patients. “It’s been signed and promulgated, which means it’s been basically distributed and become a regulation,” Zurlo said. “In the regulation itself, it does state it will take effect on July 1st.”
That’s partly because, Zurlo said, the seed-to-sale tracking software the state uses is due for an upgrade. Under the new rules, already-qualified cannabis patients from states that have a medical cannabis program could go to any dispensary in New Mexico to register as a reciprocal patient.
“What it really comes down to is we’re not doing an upgrade that just includes this,” Zurlo said. “We’re actually doing a much broader upgrade and an upgrade that is going to have a much greater impact for patients in improving the system and improving how patients actually get registered in the program.”
Zurlo said part of the update will include an online portal where some patients can register and be approved by providers online.
Between now and July, medical cannabis patients in New Mexico can expect to see the beginnings of consumption areas, or sanctioned places to use medical cannabis.
With eight days left in the legislative session, passing a cannabis legalization bill is looking more and more like a long-shot. But there are three other bills related to cannabis and hemp that have been moving through committee assignments, some with little to no debate or opposition.
The two cannabis legalization bills have stalled so far in both legislative chambers. The Senate version passed its first committee and is scheduled to be heard Wednesday afternoon in its second. The House version of legalization has yet to be heard in its first committee. Both bills are politically divisive and will likely be subjected to hours of public testimony and legislative debate.
A state panel met but was unable to make any actual recommendations for adding more qualifying conditions to the list of reasons approved patients can use medical cannabis.
The New Mexico Medical Cannabis Advisory Board heard thoughts and recommendations from a handful of medical cannabis patients on Tuesday on how to improve the Medical Cannabis Program. The board will send Department of Health Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel their words of support for the dozens of patients and patient advocates who spoke about things like changing state statute to broaden who can use medical cannabis and social inequalities in who owns production companies.
The advisory board was put in place through state law to hear from petitioners who want certain qualifying conditions added to the list of reasons patients can legally use medical cannabis. There are currently almost 30 qualifying conditions that range from chronic pain to post traumatic stress disorder.
What began as a traditional advisory board meeting on Tuesday, evolved into a de facto listening session where patients and advocates aired their concerns about the program. All but one of the advisory board members attended the meeting by phone. But by the time the board got to the last three petitions, most of the board members left the call, resulting in a loss of quorum.
The issues raised before the loss of quorum were general suggestions for the program and not conditions the board has authority to actually weigh-in on.
On a Sunday afternoon over Labor Day weekend, a masked man, armed with a gun, burst through the doors of an Albuquerque medical cannabis dispensary. About two minutes later, he walked back out the door, with an estimated $5,000 worth of cannabis products. In that time, the man hopped over a glass display case and corralled employees and at least one patient into one spot while he emptied a large jar of cannabis—and seconds later cannabis concentrates from the display case—into a bag. After he left, the man got into a car waiting in the back and sped off. All of it was caught on security cameras.
In body camera footage from the Albuquerque Police Department, one of the employees can be heard recounting what the man said.
“He asked if we had families and he was like, ‘Then you understand why I have to do this,’” the employee said.
Dueling press releases over medical cannabis fees show the continuing, contentious relationship between a medical cannabis producer and the New Mexico Department of Health. The producer, Ultra Health, has long argued, often in court, that state mandated plant limits for producers should be higher.
In a press release issued last week, Ultra Health argued that even with the latest plant increase to 1,750, the state’s fee structure discourages producers from growing the maximum amount of plants. Making it harder for producers to grow the maximum amount of plants, Ultra Health argued, will impact patients.
“Under the new fee schedule, it will be impossible for all producers to meet the 1,750 maximum and cultivate an adequate supply of medicine for patients,” the Ultra Health release read.
The DOH recently changed fees for producers to a graduated structure. The cost per plant significantly increases for producers after 1,000. According to Ultra Health’s data, only 12 of the 34 licensed producers paid $180,000 for the maximum 1,750 plants.