The drama around a business that was accused of illegally gifting cannabis to patrons is heating up now that the Las Cruces City Council is considering revoking its license. One of the principal players is accusing the city of Las Cruces of conspiring to keep him out of the mayor’s office.
The Las Cruces City Council postponed a decision last week on whether to uphold the city’s Community Development Department decision to revoke the business license of Speak Easy, a CBD and smoke shop that was accused of illegally gifting cannabis despite a warning from the state’s Cannabis Control Division (CCD).
But the company’s sole principal says the city’s decision is politically motivated, and the council is attempting to keep him from running for mayor of Las Cruces.
Last summer law enforcement received word that Speak Easy was giving customers a “free gift” of cannabis dependent on the amount of money they spent in the shop. Under the state’s Cannabis Regulation Act—which went into effect last June—individuals are allowed to gift cannabis to one another as long as there is no money exchanged.
Speak Easy began quietly handing out free gifts around this time. According to reports, customers who spent $15 would receive 1.5 grams of cannabis flower. Customers who spent $50 were gifted three grams of cannabis. When questioned by state regulators, the company’s representatives said they were within their legal rights because of the laws regarding gifting.
However in July, undercover agents with the Las Cruces/Doña Ana County Metro Narcotics unit allegedly purchased cannabis products directly from Speak Easy organizer Jason Estrada without making any other purchases. Estrada has been identified as an owner of the establishment, but he claims to only be contracted to do marketing for the company. According to state records, Estrada is listed as the sole organizer for the company.
“Speak Easy’s practice of ‘gifting’ cannabis to customers who purchase certain items at their shop is illegal,” said CCD in a press release. “The exchange of money in the transaction makes it a sale, not a gift, and is therefore illegal.”
The state’s Regulation and Licensing Department (RLD) ordered the business to cease and desist gifting marijuana. “The quantity of the ‘gift’ cannabis is directly bound to the dollar value of the non-cannabis product purchased, thus, ‘financial consideration’ (i.e. monetary value) has been established for each cannabis product being distributed by Speak Easy,” regulators wrote in the order. The department threatened criminal charges if the business failed to halt the practice but did not levy any fines or penalties against the company.
In an interview on Growing Forward, Estrada said the company wasn’t trying to skirt the law when it began gifting cannabis samples to customers. “The reason they did that was not to circumvent any rules or any regulations. The reason to do that is so you can build your staff, start building the economy and have the money and capital to build the infrastructure to get into this business.”
Later in the interview, Estrada says, “I love Las Cruces. I love Doña Ana County. The city didn’t shut Speak Easy down … It wasn’t our citizens here. It wasn’t Doña Ana County. It wasn’t our mayor. It wasn’t our City Council. It wasn’t our chief of police … This was Santa Fe that stopped us … We’re still going to help people, regardless of what the state says.”
Speak Easy’s owners shut the store down temporarily and then reopened after telling regulators that they would comply with the order and would immediately stop gifting cannabis to customers, but in August undercover law enforcement agents once again allegedly purchased a joint, a small container of THC wax and approximately 3.6 grams of cannabis flower from Estrada.
In September Estrada was charged with selling marijuana illegally—a fourth-degree felony and the first of its kind since the state legalized cannabis. “I didn’t do this and so I’m going to fight it,” Estrada told reporters.
“Make no mistake, this is not the Cannabis Control Division coming after Mr. Estrada, this is a prosecution initiated by our local city government and law enforcement,” Estrada’s lawyer Matt Madrid said in a press release. Estrada pleaded not guilty in November, and the case was dismissed earlier this month.
Is It a Conspiracy?
In a notice letter to Speak Easy, Community Development Director Larry Nichols reportedly wrote that the felony charges brought against Estrada led the department to revoke the business’ license. But Estrada appealed the decision, sending it to the city council. Last week the council voted six to zero to postpone its decision until Feb. 8.
Estrada and his lawyer claim that the city’s sudden action against Speak Easy is not being made in good faith and is an attempt to quell Estrada’s mayoral campaign. On Sept. 15, Estrada announced that he was running for Las Cruces mayor in 2023.
“It’s interesting that the alleged activity in the criminal complaint was widely publicized in July but the actions taken by the City of Las Cruces, administratively and criminally, were not initiated until Mr. Estrada announced his candidacy,” Madrid said.
“This is a political witch hunt because I am running for Mayor and they can see I am going to win and take office. And turn this city around!” Estrada reportedly told Las Cruces Sun News in a text message.
It’s unclear what Estrada believes the city’s motivations are in allegedly moving to block his campaign. In his public announcement to run for office, Estrada never clarified his platform or made any specific comments pertaining to public policy other than a promise to “hold people accountable.”
Neither Estrada or Madrid responded to requests for comment.