Growing Forward: Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth talks legalization

The New Mexico state Senate will likely start the official push for full cannabis legalization as late as next week, according to the top member of Democratic leadership. 

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said the Senate will not meet for its second floor session until Feb. 1, but that he expects “a huge bucket of bills” to be officially introduced then. At least one of those bills is expected to be a cannabis legalization proposal. 

“We just had a very long day on Tuesday,” Wirth said in the first episode of the second season of Growing Forward, the collaborative podcast between NM Political Report and New Mexico PBS. “But we’ll be back on the first and I think at that point you will see exactly what’s there and can analyze those and discuss them and certainly we welcome input.”

At least one recreational legalization bill is expected in the New Mexico House of Representatives within days. 

Wirth said a new class of progressive Senators elected last year who are in favor of legalization could help push the issue through the Legislature and to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk. But, he said, that hinges on Senators’ willingness to work together on specific issues. 

“So that, of course, is contingent upon us getting through all the details and seeking compromise amongst the various proposals, and the good news is that we’ve been having those conversations already,” Wirth said.

Growing Forward: Holiday Leftovers

This week marks the final episode of Growing Forward’s first season. This week, we talk about some of the things we didn’t get to in subsequent episodes. 

One of those issues is banking. Over the years, as states began legalizing both medical and recreational-use cannabis, there have been numerous reports of cannabis companies struggling with where to put their money. Nationally accredited banks have historically been hesitant to openly take money from sales of a federally illegal substance. 

We talked to Patty Lindley, the director of compliance and quality at U.S. Eagle Federal Credit Union about how that organization is working with medical cannabis companies to make banking safe and legitimate. Lindley said U.S. Eagle has a seperate program for medical cannabis banking that she hopes will appease federal regulators. 

“I do expect there to be some extra scrutiny on the program, so we’re prepared for that,” Lindley said.

Growing Forward: A trip to a dispensary and manufacturing facility

In this week’s episode of Growing Forward, we took a field trip. 

Co-host Megan Kamerick and I visited both a dispensary and a cannabis manufacturing facility to learn more about how medical cannabis patients in New Mexico get their medicine and to learn about some extraction processes. 

Our first stop was to R. Greenleaf in Albuquerque. Our tour guide was Dominic Garcia, the director of retail operations for the dispensary’s management company Reynold Greenleaf and Associates. Garcia said the dispensary runs on a pharmacy model where the cannabis is dispensed from a window behind the counter. 

Garcia said employees are not licensed medical providers but can still help new patients navigate the many different varieties of cannabis and many different methods of consuming it.   

“A lot of times also the peer educator will ask about what their ailment is and then from there, they can help educate them from a point of also being a patient,” Garcia said. 

From there, Megan and I went to Mountain Top Extracts, also in Albuquerque. 

Eric Merryman is part owner, along with his wife Jennifer, of the manufacturing company. Eric said he started the business after he helped his ailing mother find ways to combat the symptoms of cancer. Eventually, Eric and Jennifer were licensed by the state to make cannabis extracts and derivatives.

Cannabis and Indigenous Communities

Native Americans governments across the country and even in New Mexico are diverse in many of their views, including cannabis. 

This week on Growing Forward, a podcast collaboration between NM Political Report and New Mexico PBS, we take a look at how Native American communities fit into state-wide legalization efforts. 

We spoke with Navajo Times reporter Arlyssa Becenti about the work she’s done covering a hemp and cannabis scandal near Shiprock. 

Becenti has been covering a hemp growing operation overseen by Dineh Benally. Most recently, federal law enforcement got involved and reportedly arrested a group of people accused of illegally growing hemp and possibly cannabis with THC. 

Benally said the Navajo Nation is working on clarifying and changing laws on hemp. But cannabis with THC is still illegal in New Mexico and in the Navajo Nation. 

Becenti told Growing Forward that some in the Navajo Nation are still grappling with hemp’s place in their community, but that trying to pinpoint one unified view on cannabis is hard.  

“There’s just no one underlying traditional belief,” Becenti said. “We all have our different beliefs and how we interpret Navajo beliefs and Navajo traditions, even Native language is so different from one side of the reservation to the next side of the reservation.”

Monica Braine, a producer with the nation-wide call-in show Native America Calling, agreed that just like counties and states don’t have a unified view on legalization, Native American governments also have a diverse outlook on the matter. 

But, Braine said for those tribal governments that do want to get in on the legalization action, it can be tricky. 

“In the past, it kind of seemed like tribes have been sort of an afterthought unless they demand or it’s required by law that consultation happens,” Braine said. 

She added that she doesn’t think tribal leaders necessarily have the resources to squeeze their way to the proverbial negotiation table to make sure they’re included in legalization legislation. 

“I’m not sure that pueblos and tribes in New Mexico have the time and energy to make sure that they have a place at the table and they shouldn’t have to,” Braine said. 

But Emily Kaltenbach with the New Mexico Drug Policy Alliance said she’s not entirely sure what legalization bills next year will look like exactly, but that previous attempts did address Native American governments. 

“Last year’s bill actually required that there would be some tribal agreements with the state for many reasons,” Kaltenbach said. “We want to see sovereign nations be able to stand up their own legalization systems, both on the medical and the adult-use side.”

New episodes of Growing Forward, which was made possible, in part, by the New Mexico Local News Fund, are released every Tuesday. 

You can check out the latest episode below or you can search for it wherever you normally listen to your podcasts. 

Growing Forward: Testing and regulations

An ongoing debate in the medical cannabis community is over how much New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program should be regulated and to what testing standards the state should hold producers. 

This week in Growing Forward, we take a look at the state’s regulations and testing standards. 

The state’s Medical Cannabis Program is solely overseen by the New Mexico Department of Health. Dominick Zurlo, the director of the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, said some other states’ medical cannabis programs are overseen by multiple different agencies. 

“New Mexico is fairly unique in this way that we have an overarching Department of Health that covers the entire state,” Zurlo said. 

Earlier this year, DOH held multiple hearings about a change to testing standards. Many in the medical cannabis industry spoke out against the new proposed standards, arguing that the increased costs associated with testing would be passed along to patients. 

Duke Rodriguez, the president and CEO of cannabis producer Ultra Health, has long argued against standards that he calls arbitrary. Rodriguez told Growing Forward that his company is in favor of high testing standards, but warned that the same standards designed to protect patients can hurt their pocketbooks.  

“We want safe, reliable medicine,” Rodriguez said. “We want it to be protected, we want to be clean, but we also have to do it in a responsible way.”

Ultra Health and a handful of other producers also filed legal action against the state, arguing that the new updated rules are “arbitrary and capricious.”

We also spoke with Ginger Grider and her husband Heath.

Growing Forward: Education

In this week’s episode of Growing Forward, the collaborative podcast between NM Political Report and New Mexico PBS, we take a look at education. 

Dispensary employees must reach a certain level of required certification, but what kind of knowledge should patients expect from those who are dispensing their medication? Shanon Jaramillo runs a local cannabis education and staffing agency. She said her goal is to make sure New Mexico implements a new and rigorous education program in order to make sure dispensary employees are giving the best advice to new patients who may have never used cannabis before. Her concern is that the state legalizes recreational-use cannabis without also implementing a rigorous education requirement for medical cannabis dispensary employees.   

“I’m fearful without that educational bridge, I’m fearful that the program will take on the likeness of other medical programs that we’ve seen in other states and that will start to dwindle,” Jaramillo said. 

Part of education for both patients and non-patients  is to make it clear what medical cannabis is designed to do. An often misunderstood issue with medical cannabis is that state law does not recognize it as a substance that can cure diseases or other medical conditions.

Growing Forward: Pulling back the leaves

The fifth episode of Growing Forward, the collaborative cannabis podcast between New Mexico PBS and NM Political Report, was released on Tuesday. 

In the episode, we take a look at the cannabis plant itself and hear about how complex it really is. 

Wylie Atherton with New Mexico cannabis producer Seven Point Farms, told Growing Forward that growing experts like him have devoted much of their time to really understanding the intricacies of cannabis. 

“Discerning cannabis is an art form that’s been relegated to small cloistered groups of people who really, really loved the plant,” Atherton said. 

To the novice cannabis user, terms like sativa and indica may not mean much. Others may know the two terms as a way to tell if a cannabis strain is uplifting or relaxing. But Atherton said flavor or aroma profiles play a significant part in how a strain may affect the user. 

Terpenes are compounds found in many plants that produce aromas and flavors. Atherton used driving a car as an analogy for how terpenes and cannabinoids work together. He said the terpenes are like the driver of the car and the cannabinoids are the horsepower or engine of the car. 

“Say you’re smoking a cannabis extract like a distillate that has upwards of 80 percent THC, but there’s no terpene present.

Growing Forward: Who’s running things?

Today marks the release of the 4th episode of Growing Forward, a collaboration between NM Political Report and New Mexico PBS, thanks to a grant from the New Mexico Local News Fund. 

In today’s episode, we look at the business side of medical cannabis and talk to a couple of high-profile cannabis business owners. 

One of the most recognizable names in the state’s medical cannabis program is Darren White. 

White is a former law enforcement officer and the former head of public safety for both the City of Albuquerque and the state of New Mexico. He ended his time as Secretary of Public Safety under then-Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, after Johnson publicly said he was in favor of legalizing cannabis. 

At the time, White was staunchly opposed to legalizing cannabis and said he was even opposed to medical cannabis. But now White is the head of PurLife, one of the more prominent cannabis producers in the state. 

White told Growing Forward that he had an “eye-opening experience” after a friend suggested White try a cannabis topical to help combat chronic pain. 

“I was just wrong about it,” White said. “It really does help a lot of people and their quality of life.”

This week’s episode also explores how the state expanded the maximum number of plants producers can grow after a legal battle with another prominent producer. 

But this week’s episode also examines what it’s like to be a producer through the eyes of a female producer, in what seems to be a male-dominated industry. 

If you haven’t listened to the first three episodes, you can catch up below or search for Growing Forward at, Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you usually get your podcasts. 

Growing Forward: The Dynamics of Legalization

In about two months some New Mexico lawmakers will begin to prefile bills ahead of next year’s legislative session, which starts in January. 

All issues are on the table for the upcoming 60-day session, but one topic that’s almost guaranteed to resurface in January is legalizing recreational-use cannabis. Since she took office in 2019, and even during her campaign before that, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham made a point to push for legalization. 

In the latest episode of Growing Forward, a collaborative podcast between NM Political Report and New Mexico PBS, we briefly take a look at the last attempt at legalization and why it failed. 

The proverbial nail in the coffin for the most recent attempt came from the highly critical Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces. Cervantes criticized the bill for being too long and complex to fully vet in the last several days of this year’s 30-day session. 

Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, has been a point person, of sorts, for the past few years on legalization efforts. He said Cervantes’ criticism of the length of the bill is unfounded. 

“I’ve been in the legislature six years now and this is not the biggest bill I’ve seen by far,” Martínez said. 

Cervantes also criticised a provision that would allow those who have been convicted of low-level drug crimes to get involved in the potential legal cannabis industry. He rhetorically asked if Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín Guzmán, commonly known as El Chapo, would be able to get a license to produce and sell cannabis in New Mexico. 

Martínez told Growing Forward that he took offense to that question as Guzmán has a reputation for violence and the bill’s provision was specifically for non-violent offenders. 

“No, El Chapo would not have been able to get a cannabis license,” Martínez said.

Growing Forward and looking to the past

It is nearly a guarantee that recreational cannabis legalization will be one of the main talking points and likely a wedge issue during next year’s legislative session. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has made it clear since she ran for governor and throughout her nearly two years in office that she wants to see cannabis legalized. 

There have been repeated efforts to fully legalize recreational-use cannabis for a number of years, but under former Gov. Susana Martinez those attempts repeatedly failed. Now, with a governor advocating for legalization, backed with potentially millions of dollars, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel for proponents of legalization. 

But both the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions showed that it takes more than the governor’s support to legalize cannabis. For the past five years, even under the Martinez administration, no such effort to legalize cannabis even came close to getting to the governor’s desk. Now, even months before legislation can be filed, lawmakers are already discussing the merits and downsides of legalization.