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The city is proposing changes to cannabis zoning rules that would permanently ban the use, cultivation, manufacture and sale of marijuana in Old Town. Most residents and business owners in the area support the ban, but some are questioning the wisdom of making permanent changes at such an early stage. Is there room for cannabis tourism in Old Town?

Temporarily Banned

Last summer the Albuquerque City Council established a one-year moratorium on cannabis in Old Town. It passed unanimously, blocking the city from accepting applications for building permits, land use or business registration for cannabis retail, cultivation and manufacturing in Old Town—the area between Rio Grande Blvd., Central Ave., 19th St. and Mountain Rd.—is set to expire next July.

City Councilor Isaac Benton told reporters that the moratorium would give the council a year to consider potential zoning limits. Many cannabis advocates at the time supported the temporary ban as a reasonable step toward an informed decision. But now, only months later, the city is already proposing including a permanent cannabis ban in the Old Town Historic Protection Overlay—with no evidence of any in-depth research or public comment around the topic.

Support For Permanent Ban

At this moment, though, it seems that most of the business owners in Old Town are in favor of a permanent ban. Residents have voiced concerns that cannabis dispensaries and cultivation operations would undermine the character of Old Town and make it less family-friendly.

“This is a well-established small and contained historic area that is visited by tourists, academics and business people from all over the world,” wrote Old Town resident Sylvia M. Ramos in the public comments of the city’s proposed Integrated Development Ordinance (IDO) changes. “Cannabis sales and cultivation in this place add nothing to that experience.”

During a small online meeting, president of the Historic Old Town Property Owners Association Kathy Hiatt told those tuning in that the association had taken an informal poll and found that about 75 percent of the members supported a permanent ban, according to Downtown Albuquerque News.

The city Planning Department held its own online survey regarding the IDO update and asked participants how strongly opposed or in favor they were of the proposed changes. Only 19 people responded to the poll—13 said they strongly supported the change, three said they were strongly opposed, two were opposed, and one was neutral. One respondent specifically requested more public outreach and discussion before making this change in a comment.

Opponents Want More Time

Those who oppose the change appear to be doing so out of an abundance of caution, rather than as an outright denial of supporters’ concerns.

“It would be a shame if there weren’t any other options under consideration,” said Matt Celeskey, president of the West Park Neighborhood Association. “The moratorium was intended to look at new options and creative solutions to the issues surrounding cannabis sales and the character of Old Town. I think that needs to have a chance to work itself out. People should look at it seriously—including looking at how it affects the larger area. I’d like to see a more thoughtful approach to the problem than just a rush to prohibition.”

Some residents and business owners are also concerned that zoning pot shops out of Old Town could potentially create a “cannabis corridor” on the other side of Central Ave. “If you’ve got disparate enforcement of rules regarding this on one side of the street compared to the other, does that mean that there will be a kind of cannabis corridor on the other side of the street from Old Town?” asked Celeskey.

Colorado border towns like Trinidad and Durango have seen a similar effect. Zoning rules in these places have pushed cannabis retailers into limited areas of the cities, where concentrated crowds of cannabis tourists create obnoxious traffic bottlenecks and other peripheral safety issues.

Alternatives Still Available

There’s still plenty of discussion that will happen before these changes will be considered by city leaders. Hopefully it will have received more granular attention by that time. There are a number of ways to approach this problem that fall outside of the avenues of outright prohibition or an unrestrained market.

A similar, if somewhat faulty, precedent has already been set by liquor sales in Old Town. Zoning already prohibits bars and nightclubs. Before 2019 alcohol was only allowed in restaurants. That year the City Council approved a zoning rule change proposed by Benton that allowed taprooms and wineries to open in the area. A similarly refined approach to activities around the cannabis industry would be well advised. There is likely a way to allow some part of the industry to integrate into Old Town while maintaining the historic character of the area.

“It would be a huge mistake to permanently prohibit cannabis from any area, but especially a place in need of economic revitalization,” says New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ben Lewinger. “Old Town, the City of Albuquerque and other communities need to be looking boldly into a future where cannabis is federally legal and regulated, not looking backwards and re-stigmatizing something that is now legal for adults in New Mexico.”

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