Green in the Grand Canyon State

Just 80 days.

That’s all it took for Arizona’s law legalizing the sale of recreational cannabis to go from the ballot box to dispensary storefronts.

On Jan. 22, tens of thousands of Arizonans lined up outside more than 70 dispensaries across the state for the first day of recreational cannabis sales, less than 12 weeks after voters approved Proposition 207.

In an environment where states like Oregon and Colorado each took the better part of a year to launch recreational programs after voters or lawmakers approved programs, Arizona’s rapid timeline stood out.

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As New Mexico lawmakers continue to look at the possibility of legalizing recreational cannabis here, can we emulate our neighbor to the west?

The short answer? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean New Mexico is inevitably going to fall behind.

“While we were slow to take up the challenge from Colorado, I think we will be able to compete step for step with Arizona,” said Duke Rodriguez, founder of Ultra Health, the largest chain of dispensaries in New Mexico.

A detail of a medical marijuana plant. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Cannabis legalization remains a priority for a number of New Mexico lawmakers, along with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. During her State of the State address last week, Lujan Grisham said she expects the industry to bring tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in revenue to New Mexico.

Rodriguez, an Arizona resident who managed a pair of dispensaries in southeast Arizona before committing to operate solely in New Mexico, said the Grand Canyon State had advantages over the Land of Enchantment, due to the structure of its medical program.

Arizona’s medical cannabis program, established three years after the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act in New Mexico, had more than 295,000 patients enrolled at the end of 2020, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services — nearly three times New Mexico’s total. Additionally, Arizona’s program allows cardholders to purchase up to 2½ ounces every two weeks, much more than New Mexico’s program allows over the same period.

Because of larger number of patients and less restrictive rules, Rodriguez said Arizona was already growing significantly more cannabis than New Mexico, making it easier to serve recreational customers when they were allowed to do so.

“We’ve kind of been more reactive, they were proactive,” Rodriguez said.

As of the third quarter of 2020, New Mexico producers were licensed to grow 51,250 cannabis plants, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.

Rodriguez, who has long advocated for recreational cannabis in New Mexico, said the state would need roughly 12 times as many plants to serve a robust recreational market in the state.

“Cultivators have to get bigger, faster, stronger in a very short time frame,” Rodriguez said

Another issue is the process of legalization. Ben Lewinger, executive director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, said Arizona approved recreational cannabis via ballot measure, where more of the rules were written into statute.

Any legalization effort in New Mexico, on the other hand, would be passed by lawmakers, and Lewinger said it would likely require a task force to develop rules around licensing, applications, fees and other details.

“Our process, by nature, is going to be a little more time-intensive,” Lewinger said. But the benefit is, we’re going to have a little bit more control.”

So, if legalization does pass during the 60-day session, how long before New Mexicans could buy cannabis without a card? Ever the optimist, Rodriguez said he could see sales going live by this fall, if the state takes steps to loosen restrictions on the medical industry.

“I think it’s pretty clear we’re on a course to having this thing launched, and launched pretty quickly,” Rodriguez said.

Lewinger took a more conservative view, noting that it would take time to set up rules and cope with unexpected challenges that go along with setting up a brand-new industry.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” he said.

With that in mind, Lewinger said Jan. 1, 2022, could be a realistic start date, giving the state a chance to set up workable rules and growers a chance to scale up production.

Whatever the time frame, Rodriguez said New Mexico does have some innate advantages over its western neighbor if and when recreational cannabis passes. The state has enough dispensaries to match Arizona’s first wave of applicants, and its proximity to the Lone Star State would likely mean a flow of Texans that would help boost sales.

“While Arizona is a state that has significant tourism, they’re not matching New Mexico as to population potential,” Rodriguez said of the state’s proximity to Texas.

Stephen Hamway covers economic development, health care and tourism for the Journal. He can be reached at [email protected]

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