Some questions have been raised following the news that the New Mexico Department of Health approved a cannabis production license in the last days that it held the authority to do so.
Only days before it lost regulatory power over the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, the DOH issued a license to GH LLC—reportedly the first license that the agency has awarded in six years. Now some producers are questioning the decision, noting that it appears to have given the company an advantage over those applying to the Cannabis Control Division, the agency that has taken over cannabis regulatory duties.
“This new licensee process has certainly ignited a fair amount of distrust, raised eyebrows and questions,” Ultra Health CEO Duke Rodriguez told the Santa Fe New Mexican. “There are a number of good folks who have invested time, effort and resources while not knowing there might have been an express lane.”
Concerns seem to have materialized around the DOH’s decision to quietly open up the application process only days before handing the reins over to the CCD. On June 23 the department posted a page on its website titled “Medical Cannabis Licensed Non-Profit Producer Application Instructions.” The page was not accompanied by an official announcement and gave a June 28 deadline. According to reports a 713-page application from GH LLC was received by the department only two days later on June 25. After two more days, Medical Cannabis Program Director Dominick Zurlo and general counsel and Deputy Secretary of the Department of Health Billy Jimenez reportedly inspected the company’s facilities and issued a license the next day, June 28. The company reportedly paid $10,000 in license fees.
“In my opinion, this was a dirty affair,” Managing Director of Reynold Greenleaf and Associates Willie Ford told reporters. “This was obviously somebody making it happen for somebody else.”
Zurlo defended the move, claiming the department didn’t do anything unusual. “We used the same process that we’ve been using for the last two years,” he said. He also said the department was working to ensure that medical cannabis patients had access to enough marijuana and would have approved even more applications if they’d had more time to do so. “We utilized the time that we had to be able to do the best that we could to help ensure that there were enough licenses to be able to produce enough cannabis for the medical patients,” Zurlo said.
State Sen. Jacob Candelaria contradicted Zurlo’s claim however, saying that, in the past, the department has “fought tooth and nail” to keep plant limits from being raised to address shortage concerns. “In court they’re saying one thing, and then all of a sudden they get their hands caught in the cookie jar, and they’re like, ‘Oh, we’re doing it for the patients,’” Candelaria said.
Las Cruces Sets Zoning Rules
The city of Las Cruces has finally settled on zoning rules for adult-use cannabis operations.
Las Cruces city councilors voted 6 to 1 to approve an ordinance that will allow cannabis businesses to operate within the city. The ordinance has been praised for taking a less restrictive approach than other cities in New Mexico. “I think this is one of the most competitive environments we’re going to create for this industry,” City Councilor Gabe Vasquez told Las Cruces Sun News. “To create jobs and hopefully to have New Mexicans owning a piece of this industry.”
Cannabis retailers will be allowed to operate in all commercial areas of the city, with consumption areas located in places that allow on-site alcohol consumption. Production sites and research facilities will be located in the city’s industrial zone. Microbusinesses will be allowed in single-family rural zones with special permits and in commercial and industrial areas of the city, depending on the nature of the business.
Cannabis operations will be required to stay 300 feet apart unless authorized by a special-use permit. They will also be required to stay 300 feet from schools and single-family residential zones. The buffer distance rules will not apply to medical cannabis dispensaries already in operation.
Colorado Officials Warn NM
Now that cannabis is legal in New Mexico and the adult-use market is on the verge of opening its doors, Colorado law enforcement officials are warning that illegal cannabis grow operations and violent crime could be in our future.
According to KRQE Sheriff of Douglas County in Colorado Tony Spurlock said the state has seen an increasing number of illegal marijuana grow houses popping up in suburban areas. Spurlock says criminals will rent a neighborhood home for the purpose of producing cannabis that can be transported out-of-state and sold on the black market.
“[Cannabis] is like liquid, it’s almost like cash, you can take it almost anywhere and sell it quickly for good money,” said Colorado 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler. “The further you get away from Colorado and other legalized states, the more money you can make.”
Brauchler says legalizing cannabis has attracted the attention of illegal gangs and drug cartels. Federal agents recently busted a Chinese criminal enterprise in the Denver area that was involved in money laundering and the illegal sales of cannabis. The operation was legally growing cannabis plants under a medical marijuana license, but officials say the group was selling the product under the table to recreational users and laundering the money through a foreign app. Law enforcement agents seized 10,000 cannabis plants, 100 lbs. of processed marijuana and $1 million from the group.
Both Brauchler and Spurlock say that violent crime has increased in their communities since pot was legalized in Colorado. But according to a 2019 study that appeared in Justice Quarterly, serious crime rates in Colorado and Washington followed the same trends as 21 other states where cannabis was still illegal during the period between 1999 and 2016. In fact burglary rates actually dropped following legalization in Washington.