The next step in New Mexico’s legalized cannabis rollout likely will come in city council and county commission meetings throughout the state, when local governments must decide how — and where — retailers can operate.
Some cities, including Albuquerque, already are embroiled in debates on the locations of such shops. Others, like Santa Fe and Santa Fe County, are only beginning those discussions.
“These are huge conversations, and we are just at the start of it because the state is developing the rules as we speak, and we have to figure out what that means for Santa Fe and what we want,” City Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth said.
“There are conversations about density,” she said. “Where do you put these shops? How many do you put? Where can you consume cannabis? What should the rules be if you don’t follow the rules? This is enormous.”
Linda Trujillo, superintendent of the state Regulation and Licensing Department, recently sent a letter to New Mexico counties and the New Mexico Municipal League urging local communities to begin addressing rules on recreational cannabis businesses by Sept. 1.
If a city or county fails to make rules before the state begins issuing licenses, it cannot ask businesses to relocate, the letter said.
According to Santa Fe County spokeswoman Carmelina Hart, county officials are in the process of developing ordinances for recreational cannabis.
The city is further behind.
The Planning Commission’s Policy Committee will begin meeting soon to discuss the issue, spokesman Dave Herndon said. But it was unclear when the committee would start meeting or how the meetings would take shape.
The Regulation and Licensing Department is scheduled to hold a public hearing Tuesday — when recreational use becomes legal for adults 21 and over — to gather input on proposed regulations for cannabis producers. A set of proposed rules for retailers is expected to be released soon.
Councilor Michael Garcia said he’s frustrated the city has not made cannabis regulations more of a priority and predicted the City Council would approve regulations at the 11th hour.
“This is going to be an industry that is going to be a game changer,” Garcia said. “We want to ensure that as we are implementing this new industry into this community, we are doing so forward thinking and ultimately trying to meet the concerns of the community.”
Councilor Roman “Tiger” Abeyta said the city doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to zoning.
“We have a good idea of where different uses are appropriate or not,” Abeyta said.
While Santa Fe drags its heels, Albuquerque, set to be the state’s largest market for commercial cannabis, recently approved changes to zoning codes to accommodate businesses.
After a six-hour meeting June 17, the Albuquerque City Council declined a series of proposals from Mayor Tim Keller’s office in favor of a lighter approach.
The council rejected all but one of the mayor’s proposals, including prohibiting retailers from “main street” corridors, which include busy Central Avenue, and banning shops from within 1,000 feet of one another or any other “adult” business.
The council also rejected a ban on shops within 300 feet of religious institutions and rules prohibiting customers and deliveries at shops between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.
The council did agree to require a distance of 600 feet between cannabis shops, unless a waiver is approved through a public process, and to allow for cultivation and manufacturing of cannabis within 300 feet of a residential zone, school or child care facility.
If Albuquerque’s process is any indication, Santa Fe City Councilor Chris Rivera said, Santa Fe might not hit the Sept. 1 target date.
Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber could not be reached for comment on cannabis rules.
Romero-Wirth said the city is in a position to model its rules on those of other municipalities with legalized marijuana.
“The good news is, we are not the first and we are not the last,” she said. “There is plenty of experience ahead of us, and we are still positioned to be able to take advantage.”
She noted there are issues the city will have to decide that might not be at the top of residents’ minds, such as drug testing for city employees.
“It’s not just for the city,” Romero-Wirth added. “All businesses are going to have this issue. … There are many layers that we will have to grapple with.”
Abeyta said he’s more concerned about how legalization will affect Santa Fe children and teenagers.
As the chief financial officer of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Santa Fe/Del Norte, Abeyta said he’d like to see funding for marijuana education, as opposed to prevention programs.
He and Rivera, who both represent south-side residents, also raised concerns about where cannabis retailers will put their storefronts.
The councilors said they fear cannabis businesses will congregate in their southwest district, where land prices are generally cheaper. Both said they were hoping to avoid oversaturation.
Councilor Jamie Cassutt also is worried about where cannabis businesses will be permitted to open. She said she wonders if her district, which includes a central stretch of Cerrillos Road, will see higher numbers of shops while historic districts on the north and east sides of Santa Fe will be viewed as “untouchable.”
“I would counter this idea that the historic district should somehow be exempt from something that my district won’t be,” she said.
Garcia, whose district largely includes midtown residents, is unconvinced cannabis businesses will saturate the city’s south side. Liquor stores and tobacco and vape shops are located across the city, he said, and he doesn’t expect cannabis businesses to be any different.
What will be interesting, Garcia said, is how businesses will be regulated in the downtown area.
Albuquerque barred cannabis businesses from its Old Town district for at least a year.
“That is for the community to decide and the governing body to make the decisions,” Garcia said. “We need to make sure we are listening to the community and making equitable and fair policy.”
Cassutt said Santa Fe should look to other cities and states when it comes to crime taking root as cannabis businesses open.
A 2019 study from the University of Colorado Denver found Denver neighborhoods with cannabis dispensaries saw sharp increases in crime and disorder after Colorado legalized the drug in 2014.
Denver’s experience does not mean major spikes in crime are likely in other places with legalized cannabis, the study said.
Still, Cassutt said it will be important to take a look at law enforcement strategies in Santa Fe.
Time is of the essence for Cassutt.
“We got to step on it,” she said.