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A recent package of zoning amendments authored by Mayor Tim Keller’s administration has raised concern in the community. Following the initial outcry, the mayor’s office backpedaled on some of its suggestions, but many questions remain about the proposal and how it will affect those trying to gain a foothold in the burgeoning industry of recreational cannabis. Now there is concern that municipalities in other parts of the state will try similar tactics to keep cannabis companies out of their communities. The Paper. contacted officials from Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Taos, Las Cruces and Belen to see if any other municipalities were considering any major zoning changes with respect to the recreational cannabis industry. The response was either they hadn’t considered it, or they were waiting to see what happened with Albuquerque’s zoning proposal.

The original proposal would have kept marijuana businesses from operating within 660 feet from “main street” areas and 300 feet from residential areas, schools, daycares, churches and mixed-use areas. Dispensaries would be barred from using cannabis leaves in their signage and would be forced to stop all business dealings between 10pm and 7am.

Last week administration officials clarified that the controversial zoning proposal would not apply to medical cannabis dispensaries that are already operating in what would be pot-free zones. The administration also walked back some of the plan, removing the ban on operating too close to a “main street area”—possibly the most charged aspect of the proposal—and removing the ban on operating near residential and mixed-use areas by replacing it with a condition that new facilities be subject to public hearings before being given a green light.

It was clear that the blowback was a surprise for the mayor’s administration.

Zoning At Odds With Voters

The negative response wasn’t as big a surprise, however, as Keller’s decision to write the proposal in the first place. It’s left many Albuquerque progressives scratching their heads and wondering out loud. Keller made his dash to the mayor’s office on the back of progressive posturing, so surely he’s aware that his voter base is pro-pot.

According to an October 2020 Drug Policy Alliance survey, 72 percent of 1,193 New Mexican voters were in favor of legalizing cannabis. Last month KRQE conducted a poll of 607 New Mexicans and learned that only 17 percent of them considered cannabis to be a threat to public safety. Considering the comfortably left-leaning population of Albuquerque, compared to the rest of the state, it seems highly unlikely that there are enough of these pearl-clutchers in the city to threaten Keller’s re-election campaign. It’s all very curious.

The timing is incredibly poor as well. With one of the worst unemployment rates in the nation at 8.2 percent, legislators and advocates around the state have been promising that a robust recreational market would provide jobs to New Mexicans. If cities try to push the industry away with zoning laws, those jobs become literally out of reach.

Let’s stop for a moment and consider the current state of Central Ave. and Downtown in particular. Our once-beautiful city has been reduced to a wasteland of empty storefronts and boarded-up windows by the pandemic and the poor planning of previous mayoral administrations. Why would anyone block an industry that few oppose from promoting growth and vibrancy in these dead areas?

Mapping Discrimination in NM

The City Council has deferred the decision until at least June 17 to give members time to consider the facts. But whether the issue remains for Albuquerque or not, the idea is now in the air that if a particular municipality’s leadership doesn’t want cannabis in their community, then they can just zone the industry out. This is completely contrary to the spirit of the Cannabis Regulation Act, which—while providing autonomous control over zoning to local governments—still made it clear that municipalities and counties cannot opt out of cannabis sales.

Zoning out cannabis companies works against consumers and medical patients who are forced to travel farther to purchase cannabis. This will undoubtedly have a greater effect on the underprivileged and discriminates based on income.

Web developer and activist Joby Elliot took to Twitter last week with a scathing series of tweets that highlighted just how strict the Albuquerque zoning proposal would be. Before the mayor’s office walked back the main street ban, a map created by Elliot showed areas where cannabis companies would be allowed to operate. Under the plan, dispensaries would be cut off from vast swaths of prime real estate. Notably choked out was the Nob Hill corridor. Under the revised plans, some of those areas opened up, but restrictions against operating too close to churches and schools still created unnecessary hurdles.

“The heart of the matter is: It shouldn’t be harder for somebody in a mixed-use zone in Barelas to start a microbusiness on their own property than it is for a corporate dispensary to spin up in a fancy business park,” tweeted Elliott.

Executive Director of Seven Point Farms Robert Jackson says the sentiment behind the proposed amendments carry the potential to harm lower-income communities and communities of color.

“We’ve done a lot of work to include innovative and inclusive legislation at the state level,” said Jackson. “And this zoning—while I get the general intent—it basically excludes marginalized areas.” He points out that if similar zoning rules are adopted in low-income rural areas with only one main street surrounded by residential housing, cannabis businesses could potentially be driven out of those spaces.

“Unfortunately, it’s not a very inclusive zoning proposition,” says Jackson. By forcing businesses away from the main streets, the city would be driving them to operate in areas with higher real estate price tags. “Which automatically makes the price way more out of reach for these small micro businesses. And the idea is to be inclusive and to give New Mexicans—especially New Mexicans of color—access to this booming industry.”

While Jackson doesn’t believe the mayor’s office was purposefully looking to exclude people of color, he noted that the proposed package overlooks the communities most in need of the social equity made possible by legal cannabis.

The City Council will hold a special council meeting on June 17, at 3 pm to discuss the zoning proposal. Watch it at GOV-TV at cabq.gov or on Comcast Cable Channel 16 or on the city’s YouTube channel.

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