Looking ahead to recreational cannabis | Business

With the recent passing of House Bill 2 in a special session called by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexicans can now look forward to being able to legally grow, purchase, smoke,and sell cannabis. Now that a regulatory committee is being formed and rules are being drafted, the citizens and the government of Taos are preparing for a potential influx of cannabis businesses.

The new bill allows for what is being called “micro licensing,” or the ability to grow 200 cannabis plants at a time for an annual fee of just $1,000 per license. Micro licenses will be able to be obtained for growing, selling, extracting and even cannabis consumption spots.

With the new law allowing for a reasonably priced license, many residents say they feel the playing field has been leveled and they eagerly await the changes to come.

With the recent departure of medical cannabis producer New Mexicann from Taos and the state, local nonprofit producer Southwest Wellness seems poised to take advantage of the new change in legislation. The company supplies its dispensaries in Taos, Española, Santa Fe and Albuquerque with cannabis grown in its 35,000-square-foot greenhouse in Taos, just off Salazar Road.

Southwest Wellness also operates a dispensary in front of the growhouses, and employs approximately 40 people in Taos. They have been operating as a medical cannabis facility and dispensary in Taos since 2017 and are one of the 34 currently licensed medical cannabis facilities in the state.

Southwest Wellness brand ambassador Stephanie Franco said she looks forward to the changing environment and that the company plans to take full advantage of the new legislation. “Legalization is very exciting for New Mexico. We have an expansion plan that includes creating job opportunities for Northern New Mexicans and providing greater access to quality cannabis and cannabis derived products to both medical patients and adult consumers,” she said in an email.

While Southwest Wellness has the obvious advantage, there are some locals who already have their eye on the prize as they gear up and gather the proper paperwork. One such individual is Mario Vargas, who recently started his horticulture consultation company Taos Monte Grown, LLC. A born and raised Taoseño and cannabis grower for over 20 years, and current employee at local organic gardening center Earthgoods, Vargas hopes to help others start their businesses the right way.

“My plans basically are to help and educate people to be able to grow their own medicine and cannabis; to kind of get them on a whole new level of being on the trade side, just like woodworking or anything else like that,” he explained. Vargas is also a woodworking teacher at UNM-Taos.

He described his company as focused on helping businesses “from seed to clone, commercial to homegrown.” He said he has already received several inquiries from interested growers.

Vargas said he sees the new legislation as a game changer when it comes to people having options. “Taos is very small, you don’t have too many producers,” he said, but noted that “Taos has been known for having the best cannabis – hands down – in New Mexico and the Southwest. I think it’s a great opportunity. We are able to have a lot of our fine [local] talent go ahead and expose their trade now that everybody is able to go ahead and [grow] legally.”

He explained the market might get oversaturated, and acknowledged that some producers may not make the cut. “There’s going to be people who know how [to grow], and have the knowledge, and are going to be able to go ahead and jump onto that horse right away and ride it. And there’s going to be a lot of people who are going to be experiencing some hurdles, some roadblocks,and maybe even some dead ends,” he said.

Overall he sees the legislation as a win for the little guy. “It gives people a chance to have a chance,” he said.

The town of Taos remains equally hopeful for positive lasting change that could come from the ability for locals to grow recreational marijuana. Town of Taos manager Rick Bellis said in an email the town looks forward to the gross receipts taxes to be collected from cannabis businesses, which can go to help “balance the economy as small town retail continues to struggle against the internet.” The legislation reads that 33.3 percent of the GRTs will go to the municipality, while the tax rate for the plant will start at 13 percent and go up 1 percent per year to cap out at 18 percent.

Bellis also feels the legislation will help to put Taos on the map in terms of competing with other ski and tourism areas along the Rockies. “It also seems to fit the ‘vibe’ that people expect of Taos as a laid-back, libertarian, artist-base, ’60s cutting-edge type of get-away.”

The idea of cannabis related tourism might be one of the bigger no-brainers for the town and new cannabis businesses. Town councilman Pascualito Maestas said he feels cannabis tourism might be “the low hanging fruit,” but that it remains something to be taken advantage of. “I remember seeing in Colorado after they had legalized, there were cannabis star-watching tours. I think creative businesses will be able to think about things like that, and have new tourism elements that we’ve not really seen before,” he said.

Maestas also agreed that it could financially benefit the town and its residents, and said “this could be a way to raise some revenue for other things.” He also suggested that it could make the cost of living lower if people are producing their own rather than spending money at the dispensaries, “especially if they use it medicinally or regularly.”

Councilman Fritz Hahn said that the changes could be a big help for local residents with land. “With proper oversight, protection of water rights, and legislative focus on local entrepreneurial initiatives, recreational marijuana could afford an opportunity for traditional, intergenerational, local farmers to plant and harvest a meaningful cash crop,” he said. “Doing so will help to revitalize our acequias which will recharge our aquifers and our tree canopy,” he added, though several acequia activists disagree (see Acequia concerns).

Bellis also said he hopes cannabis, along with hemp, “will help create another agricultural option for those multi-generational families that still have family land and water rights.”

Both Bellis and Hahn said they hope the legislation will help retain the younger generations in Taos.

What the medical patients think

There are currently 112,183 active medical cannabis cardholders in New Mexico (as of March 2021), and a total of 7,441 personal production licenses (PPL) – a separate license that allows a medical patient to grow up to 12 of their own plants.

Current medical patients and cannabis advocates in Taos remain hopeful for the new changes. Cork Lillick has had his medical card for five years and has been growing his own medicine with a PPL. He said he’s not sure how the changes will affect him directly, but is glad that the legal aspect and stigma around cannabis will change.

Under the new law, PPLs will be eliminated, and any adult will be able to produce 6 cannabis plants, with a maximum of 12 per household, an action which Lillick joked “would just save me the 30 bucks a year for applying for the license.” He added that while he is unfamiliar with the exact changes brought about by the legislation, he’s “sure it’s going to be somewhat of an economic boom.”

Michelle Gonzalez is a Taos resident who said while she doesn’t smoke cannabis herself, she fully supports medical and recreational cannabis, and has been involved in the medical scene secondhand after helping her teenage son get a card.

Shortly after her husband died from drug use, she explained that her son had to go through surgery and came into contact with opiates for the first time. “He was noticing on his own that the painkillers were not working and he didn’t want to get addicted to them. He just saw his father pass away from drugs,” explained Gonzales. “He started smoking and the benefits helped more than the painkillers.” She said her son came to her and together they came up with a plan to get him a medical card.

Leah Tenoria-Acosta is another medical patient, and a born-and-raised Taoseño. A medical cardholder for two years, Tenoria-Acosta said cannabis helps her with her peripheral neuropathy, an autoimmune disorder. She said she’s glad to see the benefits of cannabis being accepted by the mainstream.

“It’s an exciting future. It’s something that has been wanted and needed for so very long and then for it to just like materialize was [fantastic]. I guess I stopped believing it was ever going to happen,” she said.

She said nearly a decade ago she had attempted to try to dive into the medical cannabis scene in New Mexico, but was told by her lawyer the timing wasn’t quite right. Now the tide has shifted, she said she is considering reaching out to her lawyer again to “see if it’s something that would be worthwhile, just changing some language and reapplying, whether that sounds like a good business venture.” She also pointed out that she owns a property that might serve as a good “cannabis Airbnb.”

All in all, Tenoria-Acosta said she hopes to see Taos take advantage of the legalization in true Taos spirit. “As creative and healing a space as Taos has always been, I would love to see people embrace this as just an extension of that creativity and healing atmosphere. I think Taos could be literally a cannabis friendly destination, if we chose to make it that.”

From a medical perspective

Carol Rhodes, APRN, ACNP, FNP, has been prescribing medical cannabis cards for the last four years in Taos. She has a Masters in Cannabis and Family Herbal Certifications, and has certified over 3,900 patients across the state. Rhodes is also a medical provider with Pinwheel Healing Center Taos, specializing in opiate-use disorder, addiction and behavioral medicine.

She explained she got into helping patients get their cannabis cards after seeing the negative effects of traditional Western drugs that treat pain, mental health and addiction. Contrasting that to the multiple firsthand instances witnessing the healing powers of cannabis, she decided to get patients the help they need without harmful chemicals.

“[Recreational cannabis] will be interesting because I think maybe with the deregulation, more people’s eyes will open up and realize ‘Hey, I could use this instead of what I’m using now, for my antidepressant or mood stabiliser,'” she said. “You may see a shift that way.”

Though Rhodes is encouraged by the push for recreational cannabis, she said the problems of federal illegality still looms overhead, and real progress will be made when the federal government takes cannabis out of Schedule I – a drug scheduling class for substances deemed highly dangerous with no medical applications.

Another pro she sees to the recreational side is the enhanced awareness of the substance’s true benefits. “I think it will bring more awareness to the medical benefits of cannabis. We have [cannabinoid receptors] in every cell of our body with the exception of the area of the brain that controls our breathing and our hearts.”

All in all, Rhodes hopes the light on medical cannabis will shine a little brighter, and with recreational cannabis will come medical education. She explained people who may not have had qualifying conditions before – like anxiety and depression – may now consider getting a medical card for their issues.

“I always say it’s not the silver bullet, but it could help most just simply by our physiology, and the way the endocannabinoid system works,” said Rhodes. “Finally, it’s coming around, you know, 7-10,000 years, it’s been around, finally we’re appreciating it for what it’s worth.”

While the majority of people interviewed are in favor of the new legislation, there are several groups who remain concerned about the potential for damage to local watersheds and acequias. The New Mexico Acequia Association (NMAA) had lobbied hard during the legislative session, making sure that acequias were considered, and that local, small-time farmers have an equal opportunity to apply for, and receive licenses.

The NMAA worries that corporate money from out of state cannabis businesses will come into the area and buy up water rights. Paula Garcia, executive director of the NMAA said with water resources already strained, they are worried about what the entrance of a high value crop will do to the traditional sharing and rationing aspect of acequias. “There’s some concern among some of our leadership that sustaining those kinds of equitable sharing customs could be difficult when you have an entity who comes into the community with a lot of power.”

Councilman Maestas echoed this sentiment, saying “if a California producer comes in with hundreds of millions of dollars wanting to invest, it’s pretty hard for a family struggling to say no to selling their water rights. I think we’ll have to start working on tackling that issue before it turns into a problem, then it’s hard to rein it back in.”

Garcia said that during the legislative process, NMAA pushed for changes such as a rural equity fund to establish an even playing field for small-time farmers, and are happy with at least some aspects of the micro licensing. “We recognize that the industry could also offer economic opportunity for some growers, especially because the bill does provide for micro licenses and potential for smaller growers to fit into the industry.”

Regardless of the way licensing is set up, Garcia said she is worried that what has played out in the San Luis Valley in Colorado since legalization could also happen here in Taos. “Most of what we’ve heard about the San Luis Valley about the impact of cannabis and rural communities has been overwhelmingly negative,” she said. “We’ve seen abuses by the industry in rural communities where they just tap into rural community water systems without having permission to do so, without being authorized to use water for commercial purposes.”

Along with the NMAA, The Taos Valley Acequia Association (TVAA) also shares some of the same concerns. Sam DesGeorges, vice president of the board for the TVAA, said that currently, he remains “cautiously optimistic” about the legislation.

DesGeroges’ concerns lie primarily with water use and security of the crop. “I would hate to deal with neighbors that would meet me behind the acequia, you know, fully armed because they can be,” he said of the potentially dangerous nature of protecting a high value crop.

In an already dry year, a system that is built upon equitable sharing of water may not be adhered-to by newcomers to the region, worried DesGeorges. For anyone considering going into the business, he suggested they open up a solid line of communication with the acequia community, including the other parciantes, the commission and the mayordomo.

DesGeorges, who grows hay, said that “it’s going to take a different type of business person to be able to do this. It’s not for everyone. I recommend thinking long and hard before even considering that. It’s not all going to come up roses, there’s going to be thorns to deal with.

“I think that the challenges lay ahead.”

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