Linda Trujillo warned her youngest son about the evils of getting caught with marijuana when he went off to college.
It could ruin his ability to get student loans, she cautioned.
Worse, Trujillo told him, it could destroy his career, including his plans to go to law school.
About a month ago, the pair had another conversation about marijuana. But unlike the heart-to-heart between mother and son years ago, they didn’t talk about the perils of pot.
This time, they spoke about the opportunities that lay ahead, said Trujillo, who, as superintendent of the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department, is now the point person overseeing much of the rollout of New Mexico’s just-approved legalization of recreational marijuana, which many hope will create thousands of jobs and inject government coffers with millions of dollars in new revenue.
“I called him right after the vote that we legalized cannabis in New Mexico,” Trujillo recalled recently about the March 31 conversation with her son, who is now in his second year at Columbia Law School and reminded his mother of her warnings from years prior.
“He was so excited that I was going to have the opportunity to stop other mothers from having that kind of a conversation with their sons and daughters and that we would change the lives of those sons and daughters so that they didn’t have to worry about those things, so this is personal for me,” Trujillo, 61, said.
It’s personal beyond her role as a mother.
‘In her element’
Her high-profile position as New Mexico’s top rule-maker over the new recreational cannabis industry marks a milestone for Trujillo, an attorney and former Santa Fe school board member who had to give up her seat in the state House of Representatives nearly a year ago to return to work to steady her finances in the face of the pandemic.
“This has been a really, really hard decision,” she said at the time. “I feel like I’m letting the community down, and I’m trying really hard to not feel like a failure.”
In a My View published in The New Mexican after announcing her resignation, Trujillo wrote that it was in the best interest of her family that she return to full-time work and her full earning potential.
“I literally cried for weeks,” she said in a recent interview. “It was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made.”
Trujillo, who had reduced her workload at the Walsh Gallegos law firm in Albuquerque to devote more time to being a lawmaker, went back to work at regulation and licensing, where she had previously served as deputy director of the Boards and Commissions Division. Her decision to leave the Legislature and get a job again with state government was financial but not just in the short term.
“COVID really kind of kicked it all off, but [my husband and I] were coming to a place where we thought, ‘OK. I could run [for the District 48 seat] one more time. I could do two more years,’ ” Trujillo said.
“But ultimately, I’m going be 62 in May, and I was missing just a couple years from retirement, and I felt like I needed to get back and get those couple of years in,” added Trujillo, who had also worked previously as state records administrator.
Though “heartbreaking,” Trujillo’s resignation from the Legislature last year may have worked out to the advantage of the state, said Rep. Andrea Romero, a Santa Fe Democrat who used to share an office with Trujillo at the Roundhouse.
While Trujillo went back to work at regulation and licensing as deputy superintendent, she was appointed to the top job in January following the retirement of Marguerite Salazar, a promotion Romero said comes with “gargantuan” responsibilities after the state legalized recreational cannabis.
Romero and others who have worked with Trujillo said the former lawmaker has the right skill set to set up a new industry — knowledgeable, compassionate, disciplined, hardworking — as well as the experience to develop the regulatory framework that is meant to position New Mexico for success as it joins other states that have legalized cannabis for recreational use.
“We didn’t know that the next step was that she was going to have this incredible position and that we were going to be where we are today — the stars align in that way,” Romero said.
“I’m just over the moon that we’ve even been able to sort of pick up where we left off in this last [special legislative] session and get what we got accomplished [with the legalization of adult-use recreational cannabis], so it’s just been amazing to see her totally in her element and doing the very best by the state,” added Romero, one of the principal sponsors of the Cannabis Regulation Act, which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law earlier this month.
‘Leading the charge’
In a statement, Lujan Grisham called Trujillo “a deeply experienced and thoughtful leader” she’s grateful to have on her team, “particularly in this key role as we establish a new industry over the next year.”
While the new law takes effect June 29, making it legal for adults 21 and over to possess small amounts of marijuana and also grow it at home, commercial sales of recreational cannabis likely won’t begin until next year, or “no later than April 1, 2022.”
But other deadlines are looming. The department has until Sept. 1 to start accepting and begin processing license applications for cannabis producers, cannabis producer microbusinesses and “properly licensed” cannabis producers. That’s also the deadline for the department’s new Cannabis Control Division to create a new Cannabis Regulatory Advisory Committee, which will help develop rules for the new industry.
The governor said she’s “extremely confident” in Trujillo’s abilities and leadership to get the job done.
Trujillo “has the respect of lawmakers, stakeholders and community members alike, and she has the know-how and experience at different levels of government to effectively execute even this challenging task,” Lujan Grisham said.
Another lead sponsor of the recreational cannabis bill, Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, said he has confidence in Trujillo, too.
“There’s a tremendous responsibility on the shoulders of the superintendent and on the shoulders of the Regulation and Licensing Department — no doubt about it — and that’s why I’m glad that she’s the person who’s going to be leading the charge because I couldn’t think of a better person,” he said.
Martínez said the consensus about Trujillo is that she’s “a very, very hard worker.”
“Her work ethic is off the charts,” he said.
Trujillo is also “extremely intelligent,” he said.
“As a lawyer, as a former representative, she dives deeply into these issues and really provides a much deeper understanding, I think, than most of us,” Martínez said, adding Trujillo is also highly ethical.
“Those three things — hardworking, intelligence and ethics — are how I would describe her, and to be in this position to roll out this massive new industry, I could not think of a better person,” he reiterated.
Emily Kaltenbach, state director for New Mexico’s Drug Policy Alliance, echoed the sentiment, also saying she “couldn’t think of a better person to have in that role.” Kaltenbach called Trujillo “incredibly compassionate” and an “incredible listener.”
“It gives me a sense of relief to know that both she and Deputy Superintendent John Blair are leading the implementation because I know that they are going to make sure it’s right for New Mexicans,” she said.
Kaltenbach said the amount of work and details that will be required of Trujillo and her team are a “massive undertaking.”
“There’s going to be a big challenge of how to make sure that the licensing is equitable,” she said. “I think that’s going to be one of the first challenges, not only setting up the licensing system, but there’s language in the bill that tasks the Regulation and Licensing Department to come up with plans to make sure there’s equity and diversity in that licensing.”
Like other supporters of Trujillo, Kaltenbach said she, too, is confident in her abilities to make sure the rollout is successful.
“We’re lucky to have her at the helm of the ship,” she said.
For her part, Trujillo said her department is “uniquely positioned” to oversee the new recreational cannabis program because of its areas of expertise.
“We have all of the skill sets here when you think about the things that we currently regulate,” she said. “One of the areas where cannabis can be a challenge is in the banking industry. We have [the Financial Institutions Division] here. We’ll bring them to the table. If you’re going to start building a manufacturing plant or retail space, we have construction industries here. They’re at the table.”
The department also has experience regulating professions.
“We provide licenses,” she said. “We’re set up to do that here.”
Trujillo joked she has family looking for a getaway home in Jamaica “if it all falls apart.” But she said she won’t let that happen.
“I don’t have any room for mistakes here,” Trujillo said. “This is time for us to make good on what the state needs and deserves, so we’re going to make it happen.”
Striking a balance
Trujillo grew in Tacoma, Wash., the oldest daughter of a truck driver and a stay-at-home mom.
“We had a pretty regular kind of lifestyle,” she said about her childhood.
School was difficult for Trujillo because she said she struggled with reading. Trujillo later discovered she has dyslexia.
“I graduated on time, that was not a problem, but I had survival skills,” she said.
“When you find kids in school that are not engaged, it’s because they’re having troubles learning,” Trujillo added. “I can almost guarantee you it is not because they’re just bad kids. Kids aren’t born bad. It is because they’re struggling with something in their lives, and a large percentage of the time it’s because they’re struggling with learning, and we need more resources in that.”
Trujillo said she was the first person in her family to attend college.
“I always felt like education was a key,” she said.
Trujillo first moved to New Mexico in 2001 to work for the nonprofit group Accion New Mexico. She said she traveled across the state working with entrepreneurs and helping them get their ventures off the ground. Before moving to New Mexico, Trujillo, a mother of five, operated a home child care center, taught Head Start and managed multiple AmeriCorps programs in Washington state.
Trujillo moved to New Mexico permanently in 2003.
She worked at regulation and licensing for about five years. When a new administration came in, the exempt employee “was shown the door,” she said. Trujillo worked briefly for Santa Fe County before going back to work for state government at the State Records Center and Archives, where she spent about five years, including as the state records administrator.
While working for the state, Trujillo ran for a seat on the Santa Fe school board and was elected in 2011 and reelected in 2014. Two years later, she was elected to the Legislature and served as a school board member and state representative at the same time, though she also stepped down early from the school board to deal with the demands of being a legislator.
Trujillo, one of the sponsors of a bill to create the Early Childhood Education and Care Department, said her track record in the Legislature reflects multiple “good government” initiatives.
“I believe in good government,” she said, adding that her intent is to balance public safety without barriers for businesses as her department develops a regulatory framework for the new recreational cannabis industry.
“I think it’s a balance: public safety and ensuring that businesses have the tools that they need in order to function in New Mexico,” she said. “You don’t just have regulations, rules, just to have rules. They have to have a purpose.”