Growing Forward: Cannabis and New Mexico Podcast
1st Place Winner of a 2021 New Mexico Press Women Award
A podcast exploring the cannabis industry in New Mexico. Hosted by Andy Lyman, reporter at New Mexico Political Report, and Megan Kamerick, correspondent at New Mexico PBS, on-air host at KUNM radio and former business reporter.
Cannabis Comes Full Circle for Former Gov. Gary Johnson | 4.5.21
Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson made national headlines back in the 90s by publicly advocating for the legalization of adult use cannabis. His comments were made years before the state even set up a medical cannabis program. And still today, it is one of the top things that Johnson is known for, both here in New Mexico and nationally. In a special episode of Growing Forward, co-hosts Andy Lyman and Megan Kamerick catch up with Governor Johnson to get his reaction to the New Mexico legislature's historic vote last week, sending an adult use legalization bill to the Governor's desk, along with a companion bill creating a process for the expungement of cannabis-related offenses. You can read more of Andy Lyman's reporting on Gov. Johnson and last week's Special Legislative Session over at New Mexico Political Report.
Christian Bjoerklund - "Hallon"
Poddington Bear - "Good Times"
Episode Art by: Elsa Olofson via Flickr
Put a Bow On It | 4.2.21
It's (almost) official. Recreational use of cannabis will be legal in New Mexico. After a two-day special session, lawmakers approved the cannabis regulation bill – HB 2 – which now heads to the Governor's desk for her signature. So, to put a bow on cannabis legalization, our hosts Andy Lyman and Megan Kamerick chatted with two of the bill sponsors that got it done.
Christian Bjoerklund - "Hallon"
Poddington Bear - "Good Times"
Episode Art by: Elsa Olofson via Flickr
Special Session Day 2 Recap | 3.31.21
Another busy day in the Roundhouse, as lawmakers once again took up the legalization of adult use cannabis in New Mexico. At the time the Growing Forward team recorded this update, much of the work had been completed, and just minutes after we finished recording the Senate passed House Bill 2 the Cannabis Regulation Act by a vote of 22 to 15. The House concurred with the changes just a few minutes after that, so the measure is headed to the Governor's desk, along with Senate Bill 2, which creates automatic expungements for cannabis related offenses, as well as Senate Bill 1 which made changes to the Local Economic Development Act, or LEDA. Read more on the completion of this Special Session, from co-host Andy Lyman at New Mexico Political Report.
Christian Bjoerklund - "Hallon"
Poddington Bear - "Good Times"
Special Session Day 1 Recap | 3.30.21
Day one of the 2021 Special Legislative Session saw several proposals introduced dealing with the legalization of adult use cannabis in New Mexico. There are competing bills in the House and Senate, known as the Cannabis Regulation Act (in the House it is House Bill 2, and in the Senate, Senate Bill 3). Both are being treated very differently, with HB 2 getting two committee assignments and SB 3 being sent straight to the Senate Floor. There is also a separate bill, Senate Bill 2, which deals with expungement of some cannabis-related crimes, if SB 3 or HB 2 were to pass. And, there are also pieces of the cannabis legalization in the so-called Feed Bill, House Bill 1. Additional appropriations were included to pay for aspects of running the legal cannabis market, again should HB 2 or SB 3 pass. That led to a lot of debate about whether or not it was right to be discussing these things before a legal market is even approved.
Our “Growing Forward” team breaks it all down for you, as it stands right now. We’ll be back again tomorrow night with another recap of day 2. And be sure to check in on co-host Andy Lyman’s latest reporting over at New Mexico Political Report.
Christian Bjoerklund – “Hallon”
Poddington Bear – “Good Times”
Up in Smoke
Legalizing recreational cannabis was the hot ticket item of the recent New Mexico legislative session, but the last ditch effort to get it done – House Bill 12 – went up in smoke. Now, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is calling for a special legislative session to once and for all address legalization head-on. In this episode of Growing Forward, our team sat down with Politico reporter Natalie Fertig to wrap up the session with her national perspective and with advocate Moises Gonzales to talk about what he wants to see added to future cannabis legislation.
Christian Bjoerklund - "Hallon"
Poddington Bear - "Good Times"
Blue Dot Sessions - "Greylock"
Episode Art By: N.ico via Flickr
The Race to the Finish Line
With just over a week left in the legislative session, lawmakers are racing against the clock to get recreational cannabis legalized in New Mexico. Hosts Andy Lyman (NM Political Report) and Megan Kamerick ( KUNM & NMPBS) sat down with Representative Andrea Romero to talk about one of her bills that might make the cut before it's too late.
Christian Bjoerklund - "Hallon"
Poddington Bear - "Good Times"
Blue Dot Sessions - "Lupi"
Legalization & The Legislature
Hosts Andy Lyman (New Mexico Political Report) and Megan Kamerick (NMPBS & KUNM) discuss the cannabis legalization efforts during the current 60-day legislative session. The pair starts off the episode by updating us with what's new in the current proposals with Santa Fe Reporter Editor and Publisher Julie Ann Grimm, followed by a deep dive into the legislation with Emily Kaltenbach of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Christian Bjoerklund - "Hallon"
Poddington Bear - "Good Times"
Andy Lyman: Welcome back to another episode of Growing Forward. This is a collaboration between New Mexico Political Report and New Mexico PBS. I'm Andy Lyman with New Mexico Political Report and of course joining me is my co-host.
Megan Kamerick: I’m Megan Kamerick, a New Mexico PBS Correspondent and on-air host with KUNM and today we're talking with Julie Ann Grimm. She's editor and publisher of the Santa Fe Reporter, about what kinds of things she's seeing this year as legislation moves forward. We'll also hear from Emily Kaltenbach, with the Drug Policy Alliance of New Mexico about some of the specifics in the one bill that seems to be making the most progress towards the governor's desk. First, welcome Julie Ann, thanks for joining us today.
Julie Ann Grimm: Hi! Thanks for having me.
Megan Kamerick: I've often noted here that Andy has been covering medical cannabis and legalization for a while, but so has the Santa Fe Reporter. What kind of differences or similarities are you noticing this year, compared to previous attempts at legalizing cannabis?
Julie Ann Grimm: I mean, this is the time in the session where you always wish that you could be a better forecaster than you can really be, because there is a bit of déjà vu, you know. You get towards the end of the session and things are looking pretty good in the House, but it's sort of anyone's guess in the Senate. It's exactly where we were last year around this time. We had the shorter session, but of course the House approved a cannabis legalization measure, which then moved over to the Senate and did not make it to a Senate Floor vote. It died in the Senate Judiciary Committee. So, this year, I'm just, today as we're recording this, it's Wednesday around lunchtime and we've just had a vote from the House Taxation and Revenue Committee to move the measure to the House Floor, House Bill 12. And, we've also heard that there might be Senate hearings scheduled for the first time on similar proposals on Saturday, although that's not published yet. And so, you know, that's kind of where we are. We're in the “anyone's guess” period.
Megan Kamerick: Does it have to go to another House Committee?
Julie Ann Grimm: I don't believe so. Andy, do you know about that?
Andy Lyman: Yeah, no… House Bill 12 should go to the House Floor next. Of course, there's sort of a, like a buffer period, where I think it has to be on the calendar for 24 hours. I forget all the specifics, but I guess it could be as soon as this weekend or early next week.
Julie Ann Grimm: Yeah, there's… there are some official proceedings that the Speaker has to undertake, in like receiving the Committee report, but knowing that this, you know, is likely to pass the House and that this is on the Governor's, kind of, list of priorities, I think it's likely that you would see that land on the House Floor Agenda for a vote, you know, in the not too distant future.
Megan Kamerick: There's been changes in leadership in the legislature in the last year. Does that affect any of this, if and when it goes to the Senate? (laughs)
Julie Ann Grimm: Yes and no. You know, one of the big committees, of course, is the Senate Finance Committee. This was previously chaired for, you know, ever since I can remember, by John Arthur Smith, who, you know, of course was not re-elected, is not serving in the legislature now. But, the person who replaced him, Senator George Munoz, he's, sort of, cut from the same cloth in many respects, in that, he's a rather conservative democrat. He has not favored cannabis legalization in the past and so, you know, sort of what happens at that committee is also one of those “anyone's guess.” However, you know, overall, the more conservative members of the democratic senate caucus have moved out, have been replaced and there are more progressive members now in greater numbers. And so, kind of the, like… the going political theory is that those hurdles are not in place the way they were in previous years. But, I really don't know that that's going to bear out as you look at some of the details that the senators are going to be fighting about, you know, especially with respect to taxation and expungement, I think.
Andy Lyman: One of the things, I think, worth pointing out in this, is that, at least on the Senate side, we don't know where the House bills or House bill, when it gets to the Senate, how it'll be assigned, but at least, I believe two of the three Senate bills that started there, just didn't get assigned to Finance at all. They did get assigned to Senate Judiciary, which is chaired by Joe Cervantes, Joseph Cervantes, Senator Joe Cervantes, who has, you know, been outspoken against legalization. He's, he obviously was the one to push decriminalization, but, you know, Julie Ann, going to that point… I think last year Senator Cervantes kind of brought up some of these concerns of his and sort of anxiety of legalizing and he invoked the name of El Chapo when he talked about, you know, giving a sort of a pass to folks with criminal history to get into this. What sort of things did you hear today, Wednesday, as the House Committee was meeting, sort of the same anxieties from, I guess, it was all republicans, right?
Julie Ann Grimm: Yeah, most of the committee members who asked questions, I think all of them today who asked questions were republican members, but their questions sort of danced around the expungement issue. They invoked the name of law enforcement quite a bit, you know, which happens… a lot of folks want to talk about Colorado and experiences that they've heard from legislators or law enforcement or other folks in Colorado. That came up a lot. The question of impairment and how police in New Mexico get to deal with drivers who are under the influence of cannabis, that came up. And, I think it's important to note that this bill doesn't alter the impairment standard by which police can consider, you know, your activities. It also allows your employer to discern whether you're impaired or not and to appropriately, you know, punish you or prevent you from doing your work. And so, those are kind of some of the issues that have been contemplated already. The other law enforcement issue that did come up in the meeting today had to do with the opt-in provision and this is a little bit of a surprise to me that in previous incarnations of this bill, similar to the early Colorado legislation, counties and cities could opt out of the proposed legalization in New Mexico and that provision is no longer in the bill that's moving through the House, House Bill 12. And the sponsor, Javier Martinez, said today the reason was because of law enforcement opposition, that it's sort of a nightmare for police to have, like one county being legal and the next county over not and so, you know, while that makes sense, I wasn't sure I was expecting that explanation.
Andy Lyman: And yeah, I think the other issue, too, and we'll hear from Emily later on this, I think, is that there's a tax issue too with the opt out thing, right? So, the idea of these taxes is that you're also giving tax money or tax revenue back to those communities and if you have opted out of that it's like, how do we give that money? Where do we give the money to? Julie Ann, did you happen to watch the House and Human Services Committee, I guess a couple weeks ago, chaired by Representative Deborah Armstrong?
Julie Ann Grimm: Yeah, there were two days of hearings. I caught one of them.
Andy: Did you notice any difference in some of the, sort of, anxiety. I personally seemed to notice that some of the questions in the tax committee was, they were more focused on actual issues in the bill whereas the previous committee seemed to be more of almost unpreparedness from some of the people that asked questions. You know, asking about, you know, what happens if you're impaired and you want to own a gun or all those things and it seemed like this was a little bit more focused. But, what are your thoughts?
Julie Ann Grimm: Oh yeah, the conversation from the republicans asking questions at the Health and Human Services Committee, it was very long and drawn out. There were some members who asked a lot of questions and covered ground that has been, like, gone over and over again. I think there was some conflict about, you know, which statistics people were citing and using and really, it's people who know they're gonna vote no who are, you know, wanting to elaborate on their points and really sometimes not discussing what's in the bill. I think the other challenge that you had at the Health and Human Services Committee is that the sponsor of House Bill 12 gave these really long rambling answers to almost every question she was asked by an opposing Representative. That was Tara Lujan, who was taking that… she's a freshman legislator. So, I think that kind of led to the chaotic feeling of the previous committee and you had to, you know, a little bit more definition and experience in the legislators who were debating today.
Andy Lyman: Yeah and like you mentioned, House Bill 17, I think, was, it was tabled. So, it's not completely dead, but it's kind of effectively just not going anywhere.
Julie Ann Grimm: Yeah and I think also that committee, that first committee was dealing with House Bill 12 and House Bill 17 at the same time and so trying to parse out what the differences were between these two really giant pieces of legislation, that was a challenge that was going to take a long time. Today's hearing was just about House Bill 12.
Megan Kamerick: Why do you guys think House Bill 12 got the traction the other bills did not? Or the other bill did not?
Julie Ann Grimm: 12 just included a lot more from stakeholders, you know. There were more people whose desires are represented in that legislation, House Bill 12, 17, I'm sorry, was presented more as a slimmed down version and so some of the things that backers think are really important weren't in there, like the social justice provisions, which by the way got written out today.
Megan Kamerick: Oh really, I didn't know that. I couldn't hear that. I couldn't listen to the whole hearing because, I had another…
Julie Ann: Right? That's maybe an important comment.
Megan Kamerick: What got written out? (Laughs)
Julie Ann Grimm: The appropriations piece of it got written out. So, today was the House Taxation Committee and so they dropped the excise tax proposal from nine percent to eight percent. That was a big one. And they also got rid of what are called earmarks in the legislative process, which says we want you to spend a specific amount of this tax revenue towards this specific goal. Instead it's going to leave those decisions to a future measure. It creates, stil,l the two funds you know for social justice that are intended to help low-income medical cannabis patients as well as addressing some of the wrongs of the drug war and helping people establish micro-businesses. Those two funds are still going to be established by the Act, but they don't have any money directed into them.
Megan Kamerick: I see.
Andy Lyman: Yeah and I think the sponsor, Representative Martinez, sort of said it was hard, it was hard to tell whether it was sort of to answer to some criticism, but essentially his answer today was we don't have any revenue to project yet. And so, until we get those money, that money going into these funds, we can't really say. So, yes, it was sort of, as a phrase that's overused, a lot is kicking the can down the road, right? Next year we'll go through appropriations and figure out where to…. So, the provision is still there to say we want to give money to those causes. We just don't have a dollar amount or even a percentage amount to speak about.
Megan Kamerick: But they kept the things like expungement and those issues?
Andy Lyman: Yes, and equity, I believe.
Megan Kamerick: How did the vote go down? Was it split along party lines? Was it unanimous?
Julie Ann Grimm: Yep…
Andy Lyman: Yes, it was eight to four.
Julie Ann Grimm: So that's just one republican whose vote did not get registered because they weren't at the committee at the time of the vote, but straight part other than that.
Andy Lyman: I believe that was, oh, Representative Hernandez…
Julie Ann Grimm: Yeah.
Andy Lyman: … He's from Sandoval County, is a freshman lawmaker.
Megan Kamrick: And so, it was on party lines. And, was it fiery? Was it invocations of doom should this pass? (laughs)
Julie Ann Grimm: I mean, I wouldn't say that. You know, Representative Jason Harper, who's a Republican from Rio Rancho, has been, you know, a pretty vocal critic of this, all along. He talked about how he felt like New Mexico was going to deeply regret this decision when we look back upon it, but he also said that he felt like the tax approach of this legislation was a significant improvement over previous tries and so I think that gives you a little hint of maybe how contentious or not.
Andy Lyman: I guess we should be clear for listeners and anybody watching that there was a committee substitute presented by the sponsor and those are some of the changes that Julie Ann was talking about. And, I think we're going to see that in every committee stop with this bill is probably, if not more amendments, a new committee sub every time, because it seems like Representative Martinez is really trying to incorporate as much as he can into every committee meeting.
Julie Ann Grimm: And to get out in front of it. I think that's a really good observation, you know, that if you're ready to go with the things that, you know, you have agreement about, that these things can actually move through the committee rather than getting tabled while they draft new language.
Andy Lyman: Now let's talk with a familiar voice to the podcast about some of the specifics of the bill. We just spoke with Julie Ann about. And it’s the one bill so far that's making it through the legislative process. Emily Kaltenbach is the New Mexico State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. We previously spoke with Emily about some of the things she and her organization want to see in legalization proposals this year. Thanks for joining us today and welcome back Emily.
Emily Kaltenbach: Thank you, Andy. Thanks for having me back on.
Andy Lyman: So, today, or Wednesday I should say, we're recording this on Wednesday, the House Taxation and Revenue Committee passed House Bill 12, sponsored by Representative Javier Martinez and Representative Andrea Romero. And House Bill 12, as you've mentioned to me before, is the proposal that best fits the mission of the Drug Policy Alliance. Two things in this bill that seem to make lawmakers nervous, so far, is unlimited plant counts and the ability to home cultivate cannabis. The concern seems to be that maybe home grows and a limited supply will feed the illicit market. Are we talking about dangerous people tied to drug cartels when we talk about the quote illicit market?
Emily Kaltenbach: We're not talking about dangerous criminals when we're talking about a handful of people across the state who are going to grow a handful of plants. So, no, I don't think this is a matter of fueling the illicit market, nor cutting into the profits of any industry players.
Megan Kamerick: I think… they're also, the legislators are talking to other states, Colorado specifically and have some concerns about, even if we legalized, we could have a black market. What do you think the bill does that would address some of these concerns, which has, I mean, it did happen in Colorado and other places.
Emily Kaltenbach: And there's… I think we all agree that there is a flourishing illicit market right now. And there has been, right? Until we legalize at a federal level, we're not going to completely eliminate an illicit market. So, I think that's something we all agree on, but there are ways that we can try to cripple the illicit market here in New Mexico. And, I believe that House Bill 12 does build in some of that. So, you know, one of the reasons is really allowing small business to get into the market. So, this idea of creating micro-businesses, where you don't have to have the same amount of capital to get in if the fees are lower, so what we'll see are smaller businesses moving in, especially in rural areas, giving access, you know, creating these access points for people to purchase in a legal, regulatory model, not in the illicit market. It also allows people who have been making their living in the illicit market to move into a legal market. We want that, right? We don't want to not allow someone who's perhaps been previously charged with a drug conviction, not to be able to move into the legal, above ground market. And so, House Bill 12 also make sure that individuals who may have had a prior drug conviction, allow them to work in the industry and be licensed, that that that wouldn't be the sole reason a license is denied. It was based on their prior record. So, those are two really important pieces of the bill that are not only about equity but it's about addressing the illicit market. The other piece is around your tax rate. When your tax rate is too high, you're going to see the illicit market flourish. And so, when we're talking about Colorado, there's a stark difference in those tax rates from what's provided in House Bill 12. So, House… what we have heard is, sort of, and what you'll hear the sponsors talk about is this sweet spot is around 20 percent tax. And if you look at Colorado, their tax can be as high as 30 percent. So, I think that's important as we look… even in Arizona, I believe, their tax rate, their excise tax is 16 percent. If you add on GRT to that, I imagine it'd be well over 20 percent. So, we're surrounded by states with higher tax rates. I think that's going to make a difference in New Mexico.
Megan Kamerick: And in terms of the provisions that people who've had a prior drug conviction and allowing them to enter the business legitimately, does the bill distinguish between people who were convicted for possession or with intent to distribute and of course we understand some of these laws intend to distribute…. you don't have to have very much on you… But, of course there are some people who did a lot of distributing. So, is there any sort of nuance between that?
Emily Kaltenbach: There is a distinction between individuals who have distributed or sold to minors and so they are, that charge is carved out. Other than that, we know that… and you just mentioned that, most people who are charged with distribution or trafficking have very small amounts. Often, they're what we call subsistence dealers. So, they're selling a small amount in order to use themselves and we're not talking about the cartels being, you know, the kingpins being allowed into the marketplace. We're talking about New Mexicans, who because of, oftentimes economic insecurity, are selling small amounts of drugs in their community and why wouldn't we want to move those individuals into a strictly regulated, safe industry. I think that's a better option.
Andy Lyman: Some of the things I've heard and I should back up a second here that House Bill 12 goes on to the House Floor next, which is where folks who follow the legislature know, this is where we get the three-hour debate. There's no public comment, just a lot of, sort of, comments, questions from other lawmakers. But, sort of tracking some of those concerns that have come up from opponents. In Wednesday's hearing I heard things, concerns about poverty, homelessness and judging impairment. Just to focus on that last one for a second. I know you've addressed this so many times before, but can you explain once again why you don't think we need to wait for the equivalent of a breath test for cannabis impairment, before we move forward with legalization?
Emily Kaltenbach: Yeah, I'll preface my answer with saying we want to make sure we have safe roads, right? I grew up here in New Mexico. I saw the devastation of people driving while impaired, lost friends in high school, you know, being scared to drive at night. I mean, that is real. We're traumatized by that in this state and so, but I want to stress that by creating a legal market, we're not necessarily going to see this huge increase in suddenly people out there driving impaired by cannabis. People are currently driving impaired by cannabis, so we're not that, you know, we're not going to see this dramatic increase. I also want to say, you know, as we look at data from other states, people can say, “Oh, I'll point to Colorado or Washington or California. You'll see an increase in, you know, fatalities related or DUIs.” Well, we have to remember that, the difference between causation and correlation, right? And so, oftentimes when we look at this data, there might be a correlation. It doesn't mean that there's a causation. So, if you look at the legal states and look at their data, road safety data, and you look at surrounding states that have not legalized, you can also see trend lines up, right? So, it's not just states that have legalized that are seeing potential increases. The other thing I would say is that around the drug, the breathalyzer piece is, you know, because of the science, you cannot determine accurate impairment with cannabis like you can alcohol. And so, we have to rely on other means, like we are relying on now, of drug recognition experts, who actually can see that, you know, can identify impairment, whether that's because you didn't sleep enough the night before, whether you had used cannabis, alcohol or some other drug. We need to rely on whether someone is safe to drive, not necessarily, you know, and, unfortunately, we can't determine that with a test like we can with alcohol. Andy Lyman: So, it's really… just comes down to the level of impairment, we can't really find the exact impairment level. But, right now it sounds like law, maybe not lawmakers, police officers are already charging people with, you know, impaired driving and they're blowing 0.0, haven't had anything to drink, but they may have used some other substance or, like you said, not slept or something.
Emily Kaltenbach: Absolutely. I mean, so you know it's not like overnight, you know, we're gonna have this huge crisis on our hands. We know that people are purchasing in the illicit market and using those products from the illicit market right now and, but I also would say that House Bill 12 includes a public health advisory committee that is charged with looking at this data and the potential impacts, because we have to be vigilant, right? Whether that's around youth use, or driving while impaired. We need, as a state, to be tracking those public health indicator data and impacts and House Bill 12 makes sure that that happens and also included in the community reinvestment fund is a community, a public education campaign, that would include responsible use for adults, which means, one of many things, is safe use and the risks of using and driving.
Andy Lyman: One of the things that seems to me to get, sort of, maybe, not overlooked but not brought up in committee, so far, or really sort of criticized is these, the equity and social and restorative justice provisions. I guess the equity and restorative justice does come up sometimes, when they ask, you know, are you gonna let these cartels into the business, but is that still sort of, you know, the line that DPA or Drug Policy Alliance is drawing, along with Representative Martinez, to say, you know, a bill has to have these things in it?
Emily Kaltenbach: It's definitely Drug Policy Alliance's position that a bill just to stand up in a legal industry is not enough. It's a non-starter for us. It has to include the social justice and equity provisions. We have to think about how to repair some of the harms of prohibition while not criminalizing people moving forward and so House Bill 12 does that. I mean, it includes a lot of what we'd like to see when it comes to social justice and equity, whether that's what I mentioned earlier allowing people with prior convictions to work and be licensed in the industry, to automatic expungement to, you know, there's language in the bill that would require the Department of Regulation Licensing Department to develop a plan to promote and encourage diversity in the marketplace to, you know, the micro-businesses, that's equity and social justice to us, of allowing small business and farmers to get into the business and have a diversity. So, those are the types of things we'd like to see. House Bill 12, I think you all heard, maybe in this last committee, that the ear marks have been taken out, but the funds are still….
Megan Kamerick: I was going to ask you about that (laughter).
Emily Kaltenbach: Yeah, you know, we would love to see 50 percent of the revenue to go directly back into communities like we have, you know, we've advocated for that in many other states. But we recognize New Mexico is a really poor state and any money that goes back into community is going to be going back into communities that have been harmed.
Andy Lyman: So, to be clear, those funds are still within the bill, right? They still establish those funds that just doesn't direct the money to those funds until maybe we revisit this?
Emily Kaltenbach: Yeah. It would be through a separate appropriations process, which, you know, makes sense that the appropriators then, you know, we can, as an organization, we'd advocate for funds to be channeled into those, or revenue to be channeled into those new funds that are created.
Megan Kamerick: And so, to make sure our listeners understand, the two funds we're talking about, just clarify what those are again.
Emily Kaltenbach: Yeah, thanks. One of them is a low, a medical patient low income subsidy program. So, for we know that medicine cannabis is medicine and it's expensive for many of New Mexico's residents and patients and so the idea was to create a subsidy program. The other fund is called the community reinvestment fund and that would include programs like substance use and treatment prevention, education, public education, as I mentioned earlier, housing for people who are struggling with addiction or who are in recovery, because oftentimes they're left out of the, you know, they're the ones who are living on the streets because they can't find stable and secure, safe housing. So, those are some of the ideas that were built into the community reinvestment program.
Megan Kamerick: And, would the appropriation have to wait until the next legislative session, or…
Emily Kaltenbach: Yes, it would. It would have to go through that appropriation. The idea is that, if we're going to be diverting any of the revenue that comes in through the state cannabis excise tax, those would be the dollars, then, we would advocate to be put into these funds. And, since there are no dollars coming in right now, it seemed prudent to wait until it goes live, the program goes live and then determine what the revenue looks like.
Andy Lyman: So, just thinking logistically here. So, some of the dates… another change to the bill for listeners was pushing the dates back for dispensaries being able to sell. So, the original bill and actually the current Bill allows medical dispensaries to start selling recreational use at a certain date and those got pushed back. I believe it got pushed back to January next year. I guess maybe, you may not be the best person to ask about this, but would we actually see revenue next January, at this point?
Emily Kaltenbach: Yeah, so, it was moved back from October to January and that was a good move, just because of you know the administrative burden, you know, setting up the tax system and getting all the rules in place. So, both the medical cannabis producers who are in good standing and the micro-businesses, because they're given a head start which is another aspect of equity and social justice, would be able to start selling January 1. So, yeah, I would imagine by the end of January, you'd start to see revenue coming in. So, you could potentially, in the next budget year, advocate for an appropriation.
Andy Lyman: Well, if Illinois is any indication, we might see some pretty significant revenues in that first 30 days.
Emily Kaltenbach: Absolutely. I think we will and you know that, you bring up a really good point, is we need to make sure we have enough supply on day one, because in Illinois there was a run on supply and that's, that can really harm medical patients and we want to make sure that they're not harmed in the startup and so another piece of House Bill 12 is allowing producers to be licensed and start producing also on January 1. So that, we do make sure products available for everyone.
Andy Lyman: You're clearly not in the position to, sort of, actually walk these bills through. I mean, you don't really have any, not really… you have zero control over how this moves, so I guess just more of your outlook. It seemed like last time, the big speed bump or roadblock for this was Senate Judiciary, chaired by Senator Joseph Cervantes, who sort of historically is against legalization or decriminalization, to the point where he actually, sort of, got that bill through. So, what's your outlook in the Senate, right? We're gonna have to watch through this this process all over again and sounds like a lot of these bills are not going to Finance, where it has been held up before, but Judiciary might be the new Finance in this point?
Emily Kaltenbach: Yeah, I wish I had control over how to get this through (laughs), but yeah… it'll be hard to watch, but no… I think that once House Bill 12 gets over to the Senate, we've heard that the Senate bills will be heard on Saturday in the new Senate Tax and Business and Transportation Committee and so my guess is that there'll be a lot of conversation and negotiation before House, Senate Judiciary, so that a good bill ends up getting to that committee and has been vetted and discussed prior to Judiciary and so, you know, who knows? You know, Senate Judiciary is a tough committee (laughs) and this is a big bill, but I'm optimistic that we'll be able to get it to the Senate Floor.
Megan Kamerick: Is there a reconciliation process among these different bills, is there a point where things might be removed from the final bill that the Drug Policy Alliance would say, “We can't support this anymore”?
Emily Kaltenbach: I mean, yeah… if it ended up looking more like Senate Bill 13 or the previous House Bill 17 that would be when we'd say we couldn't support it. If the social justice and equity provisions are stripped out, that's at the point that we, we wouldn't be able to, you know, support it. But, you know, I feel really confident. New Mexico is with us on equity and justice. I think our elected officials are and so I don't think those are going to be the issues that are going to be the most contentious. I think they're going to be more business-oriented issues and so, you know, we may have to give up a few things. We've already, you know, given up the idea of revenue being automatically diverted in and these funds just exist and… But, I feel pretty confident that on the Senate side, our Senators are supportive of social justice and equity.
Megan Kamerick: It is… Andy knows the legislature process better than I do. He’s there every day covering it, but it is a tad late in the process. I have covered it enough to know, more than once we've seen gigantic bills pushed through at like 11:59am on the last day. Are you at all worried about that, because that's never a good idea (laughs).
Emily Kaltenbach: Yeah, time is for me, I always worry about it, but as you said, you know, a lot can happen in… We still have quite a few weeks left and so, I'm happy to see that the Senate's gonna hear bills on Saturday. And so, that, I think that gives us enough time to get it across the finish line. I’m confident, but you're… you know, it's always nerve-wracking.
Megan Kamerick: This is Growing Forward, a collaboration between New Mexico Political Report and New Mexico PBS. You can find our previous episodes by searching Growing Forward, wherever you find your podcasts. Or, you can find us over at nmpbs.org. Our guests today were Julie Ann Grimm, the Editor and Publisher of the Santa Fe Reporter and Emily Kaltenbach, the New Mexico State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Andy Lyman: Our producers are Kevin McDonald and Bryce Dix and our theme song is composed by Christian Bjoerklund.
Let's Talk Cannabis in New Mexico: Special Episode
This week, we want to share some of the great work from our colleagues over at KUNM Radio, where co-host Megan Kamerick also works as an on-air host. She helmed this week's "Let's Talk New Mexico" call-in show, which focused entirely on the push for cannabis legalization during the 2021 legislative session. Co-host Andy Lyman from the New Mexico Political Report joined her as a guest to give important context on the bills introduced so far, and the history of the state's medical cannabis program. They were also joined by Representative Javier Martinez and Senator Cliff Pirtle, along with Shannon Jaramillo and Ben Lewinger from the Cannabis Chamber of Commerce. We wanted to share this with you, as many of the conversations we've had so far in this project are playing a role in the legislative drafted by lawmakers and the debates to come!
Christian Bjoerklund - "Hallon"
Poddington Bear - "Good Times"
Blue Dot Sessions - "Neon Drip"
Kevin MacLeod - "Back Vibes Clean"
Blue Dot Sessions - "Greylock"
Cannabis Education Efforts
If lawmakers approve the legalization of recreational cannabis in this year's legislative session, the issue of education and training for industry workers and medical professionals will be a top priority. This week on "Growing Forward" we dive back into this important issue. Hosts Andy Lyman (New Mexico Political Report) and Megan Kamerick (NMPBS & KUNM) talk with Shannon Jaramillo, cannabis educator and founder of Seed Crest. Jaramillo has worked with Northern New Mexico College to set up an accredited cannabis education program. Also joining them is Matthew Fogel, a registered nurse and author of "The Green Elephant: The Healthcare Provider's Essential Guide to Understanding and Addressing Medical Cannabis and CBD."
Note: This week, a pair of bills related to the legalization of recreational cannabis were officially filed in the New Mexico Legislature. You can read much more about the bills and what they would do, in Andy's latest article for the NM Political Report.
Christian Bjoerklund - "Hallon"
Poddington Bear - "Good Times"
New Mexico Senate Majority Leader Senator Wirth on 2021 Legislative Session & Cannabis Legalization
We kick off season 2 of "Growing Forward" where we left off with season 1: the 2021 Legislative Session. The Legislature convened on Tuesday, January 19th to kick off the 60-day session, which will be unlike any of us we have ever experienced before. Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers will do their work mostly remotely and the public is not allowed into the Roundhouse at all this year. There is still a lot of uncertainty about just how the peoples' work will get done over the next two months, but one thing we know is that legalizing recreational cannabis will be debated and discussed. We wanted to get a better idea of how supporters plan to attack the issue this session, so hosts Andy Lyman and Megan Kamerick sat down on zoom with Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth (D). If you want to see the interview, you can also watch on Youtube. And, you can read more about some of the legislation, as we know it right now, in Andy's latest report for the New Mexico Political Report.
Christian Bjoerklund - "Hallon"
Poddington Bear - "Good Times"
Andy Lyman: Hello, everyone. I'm Andy Lyman, Reporter with New Mexico Political Report. Along with me is Megan Kamerick, a correspondent with New Mexico PBS and an on-air host at KUNM. We're both co-hosts of Growing Forward, a collaborative podcast between New Mexico Political Report and New Mexico PBS and we take a look at cannabis in New Mexico. If you're watching us live on Facebook Live right now, welcome. This will also be our first episode of season two, so if you're listening, welcome and thanks for listening. For those of you watching us live today, please feel free to drop any questions you might have in the comments and we'll see if we can get them answered for you. But today, Megan and I are joined by Senator, I'm sorry, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth. Senator, thanks for joining us today.
Senator Peter Wirth: Happy to be here.
Andy Lyman: So, Senator, you and I talked last week about how the Senate may be facing more than one cannabis legalization bill and each one may have some minor differences, but of course those differences may be, sort of, hard lines for these sponsors. But, before we get into how the Senate plans to tackle those differences, can you talk generally about the process of compromise in the legislature, specifically the Senate.
Senator Peter Wirth: Sure. I'm happy to and it's a discussion I've been having with the sponsors of the various cannabis bills that are going to be coming. I don't think we've had any introduced yet, but there's been a lot of work done getting ready for the session and certainly following this historic election, the landscape in the Senate changed with respect to cannabis and our ability to move a recreational cannabis proposal forward. So, that of course is contingent upon us getting through all the details and seeking compromise amongst the various proposals. And the good news is that we've been having those conversations already. Everyone understands that, you know, the way we lose this is if we end up with someone getting totally locked into their specific provision and then kind of having this all collide at the very end of the session. So, it is… I've sent the signal that I want folks to be talking early on and we'll continue to do that and at the right time, when we see, kind of, how it looks… certainly in my role as the Majority Leader in the Senate, we can put everyone into a room. It'll be a Zoom room, of course. And, I can leave them in there until they figure it out. So, we're gonna push really hard to make this happen.
Andy Lyman: And so, like you mentioned, we don't have any bills to look at right now, but I've spoken to some of the lawmakers who say they plan to sponsor these bills. Can you share with us a little bit of what you're maybe looking for, to sort of, those hardline things that have to be in a proposal, either that you're specifically looking for, or the caucus as a whole. What are some of those issues that kind of need to be in these proposals?
Senator Peter Wirth: Well, one of the big issues that's kind of been really promoted by the Drug Policy group is the whole issue of criminal justice and impacts on various communities and that's something that, you know, over the discussion with various sponsors, that have been more focused on the business elements of it, the medical component, those kind of things, we've made it very clear that whatever bill passes is going to need to address those fundamental underlying issues. And so, I'm feeling confident, just based on my conversations that that is being, that those elements are being incorporated and we'll see exactly what it looks like. But, I just think that, you know, for example, medical producers who have obviously had a niche and are used to things the way that they are, you know, this is a… there's a whole string of issues they're focused on. And we just want to make sure that those, the underlying justice, social justice issues don't get lost. So, I think that will certainly be something that needs to be in the final bill. Another piece that I think is very important is that we don't do damage or harm to the medical cannabis program. Again, it's, you know, I was in the legislature in 2007 when this passed and our current Governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, was the Health Secretary and I just think that it's, it's a program that really, you know, has been a model for how it's been rolled out, how it's worked and we want to make sure that, you know, it stays intact and is still a functioning program. So, that'll be another a big issue and then really the details that you get into are licenses and plant counts and obviously issues that current providers, again medical providers, get concerned about. And there's the big boys and the smaller groups and those are all the things that need to get worked out. I'm hopeful, you know, one thing you hear is that there's… this is our drop-dead point and this is where we can't go any farther, you know. Again, as a lawyer who does a lot of mediation in my legal practice, you hear that a lot and of course, that's part of negotiating. At the end of the day, though, we really need to get this done, so I'm hopeful that we can shape it and make it work.
Megan Kamerick: So, can I just jump in. There was a really big push last year. It did not succeed. What are you taking away from that, in terms of why that didn't pass and what needs to be different this year to get a bill passed.
Senator Peter Wirth: Yeah, Megan, it's a good question. Of course, it was a 30-day session which is much harder to pass anything and we ended up where we don't want to be this session. We ended up with a bill, basically, that was later in the session in Senate Judiciary and instead of the work being done on the front end, going into that committee, basically the bill was presented and then, you know, the Chair of Senate Judiciary, Senator Cervantes, who has concerns about legalization, basically had a bill that wasn't ready. And so, I think it's a lesson for how not to do it. We need to make sure that when the legislation does get to the Senate Judiciary, you know, the work has been done by the advocates, by the legislators. Another thing I'll say about the bill last year, of course, it was done by the Governor's Task Force and it didn't have as much legislative involvement. This year, I know the legislators have been working very hard, kind of, in shaping and crafting these bills and that's the type of, kind of, from the ground-up versus the top-down approach that I think is needed for legislation of this kind. So, again, we just can't get it into a final committee in a place where it's not really ready to go.
Andy Lyman: So, the other sort of thing that seems to be different this year is, of course, every year that these sort of proposals come up, there's just straight out opponents that say, “We shouldn't do this.” And, of course, this year we've got this added mix of people saying, “We should do it, but we should do it this specific way or that specific way.” We still have the opponents, I'm guessing, that are going to come out and say, “We shouldn't do this.” What sort of measures can we take, or can the Senate or Legislature, as a whole, take to sort of get everyone on board. Obviously not everyone's going to vote for this, but is there a way to convince these opponents that this is the right thing to do?
Senator Peter Wirth: Well, it's a good question, Andy. And again, you learn in this game that, you know, the key is getting the right number of votes to advance it to the next committee and taking it one step at a time. And, really kind of seeing where the opposition is and having a constructive discussion about it, because, again, I do think that it's important to listen and there's legitimate concerns that are raised. What also has changed, I know you've reported on this, Arizona is now in this game. Obviously, Colorado is well into it and it just feels like it's… There's also an economic argument that I know the governor has really pushed, which makes more sense than ever given our need to diversify away from oil and gas and so you've, kind of, got a variety of different arguments and different reasons for supporting it. And then, there's obviously reasons for not supporting it, so I'm hopeful that we can listen and, you know, we've had, over the last couple years, there has also been republican support for various proposals and that's something I'm looking forward to as well, is to see whether or not there's a way to get, to make this bipartisan. It is a bipartisan issue. It should not be partisan and lined up that way and so, again, those are going to be important discussions to have and I would just note finally that the new makeup of the Senate Judiciary Committee, both Senator Pirtle and Senator Moores have been involved in discussions about how to do this and kind of discussions we had two sessions ago about different options and so again, I think that it's key to have them also at the table and trying to shape this in a way that can get that kind of bipartisan support.
Andy Lyman: You're doing a great job of anticipating some of the questions…. I'm sorry, Megan, did you have another question?
Megan Kamerick: I was gonna jump in. You had said you want to protect the medical cannabis program. So, as we've talked about in the podcast, there's… So, people know… there's really no difference between medical cannabis and recreational cannabis, but it's how it's structured and regulated. So, do you have thoughts about how, what we need to do to ensure that we protect the medical cannabis program, so patients can get the supply they need, even if we totally legalize and make it recreational.
Senator Peter Wirth: Well, you've touched on one of the key underlying issues is supply and again other states that have legalized have run into huge problems with that, when all of a sudden, the recreational market dominates and there's not the supply of medicine in the medical program. So, again, you know, I… you know, as the Leader, one of the challenges is, you know, when do you kind of jump into the weeds on a weeds, quote-unquote, on a bill like this. And so, again, I'm looking forward to, kind of, seeing the specifics of how it's done and I've heard loud and clear, you know, from medical providers that I've met with, that they want to make sure that program doesn't get rolled over by a recreational program. So, in terms of, Megan, of all the different things that need to be in place to prevent that type of rolling from happening, you know, I want to wait and see. I can't give you, at this moment, exactly what these bills look like, how we're going to do that, but I just think from an overall, kind of strategy standpoint, of getting something across the finish line, we can't have a bill that has the whole medical cannabis industry opposing it. That's a recipe for disaster. So, it's got to be something that can work and maintain the medical program, which again, New Mexico has been really a leader in that.
Megan Kamerick: I know some of the concerns people have raised around equity, you touched on, I think you touched on… the criminal justice issues, expungement for past marijuana offenses, but there's also this idea of who gets to benefit? And, in terms of, are we going to open up and have a lot of outside companies that come in and set up shop here? Will we have ways to allow local entrepreneurs to get more involved in this? But, especially people from communities that have borne the brunt of this plant being criminalized. And, I don't know how much… we've talked about this in the podcast… like how and Andy has talked about this, in terms of the legislature, how much are we going to put in the bill in statute? How much is going to be worked out in rule-making? And, what is important to have in statute versus rule making?
Senator Peter Wirth: Yeah, you know… I think, and that's a, it's a great point, because you can, you can kill a bill by getting too in depth about some specifics that do really need to be worked out in rule-making. I will say, you know, it's important to me to protect New Mexico small businesses and that is something that, you know, we don't want, you know, huge out-of-state company producers to come in here and basically use their, the economy of scale that they have, to basically undercut all the New Mexico businesses that have, kind of, been developed around the medical program. So, that's an issue, you know, we need to look at and that's one of the challenges, for sure, because again, to the extent there's a sense and a feeling that that's the direction this would go, we're going to end up with lots of New Mexico businesses opposed to the bill. And so, you know, I think there is a fine line that gets us through the challenges and the things we have to navigate on this piece of legislation. And so, really though, it's going to take a huge effort by the sponsors, to work with those that are advocating for each particular version, to try and kind of, to come up with something that can address, you know, these key issues and do so in a way that that gets it down to the Floor, where I do think, if it gets to the Floor, it will pass.
Andy Lyman: Through all these conversations, obviously the big issue here, as we're having these conversations, is that we don't actually have bills to sort of examine and break down and get analysis on. But, earmarks seem to be another issue that people have sort of changed on and I wonder if you have any thoughts on the right way, just philosophically… should we earmark tax revenue from this? Should we just put it into the general fund and figure it out later?
Senator Peter Wirth: Yeah, it's a great question, Andy, and it is… and you will see… and Senator Candelaria, who's one of the key, will be one of the key sponsors of one of the Senate bills, I think, sits on the Senate Finance Committee and there really is a hesitation to earmark money instead of putting it in the general fund and then using the money out of the general fund, appropriating it for the appropriate programs. So, that's a debate that needs to happen. Last year's version, there was a lot of discussion about earmarks and specific earmarks I think it was felt were needed for certain votes to be able to get it across the line. You know, I'm feeling more confident about the vote count on the Senate Floor and so, you know, there are important pieces that I think can be addressed through some earmarks, but I'm cautious about just taking all the money and directing it in a certain direction. I do think that a balance can be found here, you know, that addresses, you know, some education issues and underlying treatment issues. I mean, these are all incredibly important things that we need to be doing and, you know, whether it's a specific earmark that does it, or an appropriation that comes out of the general fund now that we have this additional revenue, once we get this passed I think those things need to happen. So, that's not the issue, it's just the mechanical way that we do it, earmarked versus into the general fund with an appropriation out.
Andy Lyman: So, you mentioned Senator Jacob Candelaria and I personally have had people sort of ask this question, that… and we saw the same thing with Speaker Egolf last year. Both of them have represented and, currently, Senator Candelaria represents a medical cannabis producer. Can you, I guess, we…. I know we have to get you out of here too… but, can you briefly just, sort of, address that sort of… it seems like a conundrum with our legislature on very many issues. But, of course I expect this to be raised again this year.
Senator Peter Wirth: Yeah, so it is, it is a, conundrum is a good word. Again, we are citizen legislators and, again, have jobs outside of the legislature. As I mentioned, I'm a lawyer as well, do lots of mediation work and do represent clients as well. So, again Senator Candelaria, I think has addressed this and indicated that he does not feel that it is a conflict. It's been fully disclosed and one of the, in our unique system of a citizen legislature, where legislators are not receiving a salary, you know, disclosure is a huge piece of potential conflict issue. So, I think that, you know, he'll need to address that. I do think that that's one of the things, as you move through the process, you have that discussion and have full disclosure, but at the end of the day, again, I just think, you know, he's going to be steering one version of this. I know Senator Ivey-Soto, Senator Ortiz y Pino, Chairman Javier Martinez on the House side and there may be another House, could be up to five bills, I've heard about and who knows, there may be more. You know, this is the thing about a 60-day session, is that anyone can drop bills at any time and I just, it's always interesting. And in an area like this, where there's been so much work done, the advocates have all been working on their own specific version of this, there's panic that goes out when something gets dropped that's someone's not been part of. And, I know that again, after you know 17 years of serving in the legislature and introducing bills myself, you know, sometimes that we're in areas like this that are very challenging and contentious. But again, that's… that… members have that right and can do that on behalf of constituents or for a policy reason, so you may see some more and that's going to be the key, is kind of getting a, getting a sense of what's there and for all your listeners, just in the State Senate, we'll be back on February 1st on the Floor and at that time we will introduce a huge bucket of bills to catch up with all the bills that have come in since the pre-files. We did get through about 130 plus bills on opening day, which is kind of typical for a first week. We just had a very long day on Tuesday, but we'll be back on the first and I think at that point, you know, you will see exactly what's there and can analyze those and discuss them and certainly we welcome input, you know, during the process. During the committee hearings, there will be the ability to comment on these bills, but there's going to be a lot of work going on, going on, and I'm really hopeful that this is a year that this happens.
Andy Lyman: We've just got maybe about a minute left. Megan, did you have a question you needed to squeeze in before we let the Senator go?
Megan Kamerick: No, I don't think so. This might be again getting in the weeds (laughs), but we've seen that, in some states where it legalized, a robust black market rose up as well. And so, it seems to be a matter of finding the sweet spot in terms of how much you can tax to get the revenue that everybody wants to diversify our economy, but not make that happen. I don't know if you have thoughts about addressing that, again, in the bills, or is this something that should be hashed out after the legislation has passed?
Senator Peter Wirth: No, I think this will be discussed, for sure. Again, it's a key piece of the bill and Megan, you're right, you know, if you tax too high, you just push everything in a different direction and so we've got to find the right number there. And again, we've got different estimates on the economic impact of legalization. I think Kelly O'Donnell, an economist, has said 600 to 800 million dollars, which if you had a tax in the 15 to 20% range, you know, you're looking at 100, 150 million, perhaps. So, those are things that certainly the, you know, the Finance Committee will be looking at that as a key piece of this proposal and something that the Governor has really stressed, this is a diversification effort on top of everything else that's important in this legislation. So, another one of those conundrums we've gotta navigate through to get to the sweet spot. And, you know again, I'm hopeful that this is the year to get this done and I just think the longer we wait, the less of an economic impact it's going to have as all of our sister states around us and the country really moves in this direction at a pretty high speed.
Andy Lyman: So, I know we've got to let you hop off. You've got another busy week, for lawmakers this week. So, thank you, Senator Wirth, and taking the time to speak with us.
Senator Peter Wirth: Great, thanks for having me.
Andy Lyman and Megan Kamerick: Thank you.
Andy Lyman: Growing Forward is a collaboration between New Mexico Political Report and New Mexico PBS. I'm Andy Lyman for New Mexico Political Report.
Megan Kamerick: And, I'm Megan Kamerick with New Mexico PBS and KUNM.
Andy Lyman: You can find previous episodes by searching for Growing Forward wherever you get your podcasts or visit nmpbs.org and special thanks to our production team Kevin McDonald and Bryce Dix.
Cannabis Risks and Concerns - Special Episode
In this special bonus episode of "Growing Forward," we investigate some of the concerns that still exist around cannabis use and the potential legalization of recreational use in New Mexico. Dr. Brant Hager, a Psychiatrist at UNM, reached out to us recently to point out some of those risks and concerns, in relation to both recreational and medicinal use of cannabis. He spoke with hosts Andy Lyman and Megan Kamerick about what exactly those concerns are and what lawmakers still need to be considering when debating a legalization bill next year. (Note: Dr. Hager is speaking from his own perspective and his opinions are in no way representative of UNM as a whole).
Christian Bjoerklund - "Hallon"
Poddington Bear - "Good Times"
Andy Lyman: Welcome everyone. We're running a Facebook Live for ”Growing Forward,” a podcast collaboration between New Mexico PBS and New Mexico Political Report. Joining us today, well joining me is my co-host Megan Kamerick. She's not my co-host (laughs). But, the other the other host, Megan Kamerick. And, joining us today is Dr. Brant Hager. He's a psychiatrist. Works for the University of New Mexico. But to be clear, before we start, he is not representing anything with UNM, the School of Medicine or the School of Psychiatry, but welcome Dr. Hager. Thanks for joining us today.
Brant Hager: Thanks, Andy. Thanks, Megan.
Andy Lyman: So just, so folks obviously don't know this yet, but you had contacted us towards the end of the run of our podcast with some concerns that we didn't speak enough, or really at all, about the potential risks or actually, you know, risks that have been, basically put down on paper, I should say. So, can you talk a little bit about what the data and sort of studies, you've seen that, that… what sort of risks does cannabis present to users?
Brant Hager: Sure. Yeah, whenever we're talking about medicine, we talk about risks and benefits. And, it's important to have a balance of risk and benefits and to allow people to make decisions about what they want for their health care. And with cannabis, it's, it's a little bit murky. The good data that we have on risks with cannabis…. So, we have good data from clinical trials on the risks associated with pharmaceutically-prepared cannabis products. So, for example, synthetic cannabinoids like dronabinol or nabilone. And, there's a mixture of CBD and THC called Sativex that's available in Canada and the UK, but not in the united states. So, these things have been studied in clinical trials and we have some good, reliable data to suggest what their common adverse effects are, in excess of what we would expect from placebo. Now, with regard to medical cannabis itself, we have a real dearth of information about what the adverse effects are of medical cannabis in comparison to an active comparator, for example, like placebo. And this is, of course, hindered by the fact that cannabis, as a plant, and THC as a substance, are listed as a schedule one substance, which I know you covered in a previous podcast.
Megan Kamerick: That means that people can't, it makes it harder to conduct research, right?
Brant Hager: Yes, it does make it more difficult. You can conduct research utilizing cannabis, although there are some limitations. So, if, for example, if you're going to do federally funded research using cannabis, there is actually a cannabis farm, I believe it's in Mississippi, that grows cannabis for the purpose of federally-funded cannabis research. And the, the characteristics, at least the last time that I checked, of the cannabis grown for federal research do not really match well the characteristics that are available in many medical cannabis preparations. Like, if you look at the secular trends of medical cannabis, CBD and THC content, what you see is fairly steadily escalating THC content levels. And CBD content levels that really vary depending upon the strain that's available, whereas much of the cannabis that has been studied, the sort of the federally available cannabis, if you will, has relatively lower THC content. And also, some of the information we have about cannabis use and its risks is through the lens of recreational-use. And so, we're dealing with a different, a different population entirely. It may be overlapping substantially or minimally, depending upon where you're at, but it's a different population. And, just in terms of some basic nuts and bolts, like… from the clinical trials, we know that some of the most common adverse effects of the active arm of these clinical trials involving cannabis preparations are things like, you might expect, like dry mouth, euphoria. They list euphoria as an adverse effect. You know, it's not necessarily an adverse effect, depending upon who you are and what you're looking for. Other adverse effects that are common are dizziness, nausea, fatigue, sleepiness, vomiting, diarrhea, disorientation, a sort of a weakness or a fatigue called asthenia, which is sort of like a lack of drive, drowsiness, anxiety, confusion, imbalance and hallucinations. And these adverse effects appear to occur anywhere between one and a half times more likely, to up to five and a half times more likely than placebo. And, we know from clinical trials that people in the cannabinoid arm of most clinical trials tend to drop out more than people in the placebo arm of these trials by about a factor of two. And so… but, it's difficult to take those, sort of those purified preparations, which oftentimes involve… most of the stuff that's available, actually, the only purified preparations available, medically, in the united states are pure THC. Essentially, pure THC, either dronabinol or nabilone. And then, the other cannabinoid that's available in the united states is also CBD… is available in the united states as a prescription medication. And, this is specifically FDA-approved for the treatment of certain types of epilepsy that occurs in young people.
Andy Lyman: So, I spoke with a few people over the years and kind of the sentiment I hear from… and these, to be clear, are proponents of legalization, or at least using medical cannabis… was they put it in perspective of either/or situation. So, if you talk about, let's say opiates. And so, now just to back up a bit, opioid use disorder is now on the list of qualifying conditions to become a medical cannabis patient and there's a lot of criticism that you're just trading one substance for the other. But, the comment I heard numerous times was, “well, you're trading a sort of non-toxic, or trading a toxic substance for a non-toxic substance.” So, as somebody who has the ability to prescribe medication, what are your thoughts on the dangers or adverse effects of cannabis versus things that are already, you know, prescribable?
Brant Hager: Yeah, sure. I think, if we're going to talk more broadly about harms and so on, we should probably talk about some of the, some of the harms that can be observed in some of the prospective cohort studies. So, when you take a look at a group of people and you follow them for years. And so, what we see from some of these studies is that long-term cannabis use and especially if it's heavy cannabis use, can associate with increase of a number of psychiatric disorders. There tends to be an increased risk of bipolar disorder and depressive disorders. There tends to be an increased risk of schizophrenia, in particular in people who have an enriched family history of schizophrenia. And, there does appear to be some, also some medical risk. Like, for example, there's an increased risk of some testicular cancer, a specific type of testicular cancer called a non-seminoma testicular cancer. And, there also are some short-term risk. There's… in the literature, there's a description of about a four-times increased risk of myocardial infarction, or heart attack, around the time of acute cannabis intoxication. And, this risk may be carried forward over the next over, over a follow up period of about four years. But, somehow it drops off after you have followed up for four years. So, there are a number of… oh, go ahead Megan.
Megan Kamerick: Oh, I was curious what… when we say heavy use, what do we mean? Can you quantify that?
Brant Hager: You know, there are different definitions, depending upon the literature that you're reading. I think the gist of the literature is, what it says is that, these risks tend to increase with increasing use. So, for example, if you move from occasional-use, to several times a week, to daily use. And, like a difference... Each different study will use its own definition of, like, what constitutes, quote, unquote, heavy use. Yeah. And, there is a risk… at least when we look at people with recreational-use, who initiate recreational use... There's about an 8 to 10% chance of somebody who initiates recreational cannabis use, of developing a cannabis-use disorder. And, a use disorder is characterized by continued use in the face of adverse consequences, from a particular substance. That can also be accompanied by craving and some compulsion to use, sometimes withdrawal symptoms and so on. So, it's, you know, cannabis is not unlike many other substances that we might call controlled substances. That it has, it has a misuse or abuse or use disorder potential and it does have some toxicities associated with it. Now, if you want… to stack up those toxicities in comparison with other substances, like say for example, just to compare it to opioids. Clearly, cannabis is orders of magnitude less dangerous than opioids, in terms of overdose risk. I mean, there is a small literature of cannabis-associated or cannabinoid-associated emergency departments… emergency department visits and cannabis-associated deaths. And so, there's this link to myocardial infarction or heart attacks. There's this link. There's also links drawn to heart rhythm problems. There may be a temporal association between the acute intoxication period and stroke. And there's also a pretty consistently demonstrated increased risk of traffic fatalities related to cannabis use, which is why, of course the, you know, you read the letter of the medical cannabis program statutes and they're very clearly saying, you know, this does not protect you from adverse consequences if you are intoxicated while you're operating a motor vehicle or a vehicle, so, it’s the… the gist of it, is that it's non zero risk and needs to be taken into account, just like any other, any other medical treatment.
Andy Lyman: So, I have another question. But before I do that, I want to take a, just a moment to, if anybody's just now joining us, obviously, you’re probably on Facebook. We are... This is sort of an extra episode, so to speak. A Facebook live for “Growing Forward,” which is our podcast collaboration between New Mexico PBS and New Mexico Political Report. I'm joined with Megan Kamerick and Dr. Brant Hager. If anybody has questions, if you're watching on Facebook Live, feel free to type them in the comments. We’ll be watching for those and we can present them to Dr. Hager. And also, just a real quick additional plug… if you haven't heard “Growing Forward” you can go to wherever you get your podcasts and search for “Growing Forward.” You can also go to nmpbs.org and find it there. But, Dr. Hager I wanted to ask, it's sometimes really hard, especially for journalists and just anybody in the public, to sort of navigate these, sometimes conflicting, studies about anything, right? Statistics, studies, all this… that there's, there seems to be a lot of studies coming out showing positive effects and of course they're coming from medical doctors just like yourself. So, how do we, as the general public, sort of weed through these, no pun intended, get through these, sometimes conflicting reports?
Brant Hager: Yeah. Yeah, that's a really great question, Andy, because there is such a deluge of medical literature, all the time, and it's hard… it's difficult for medical doctors to keep up themselves. And so, what we look for when we're reviewing medical literature is, first we look at what type of study is being done? And what is the evidence based off of? And, as I had mentioned in the email that I had sent to you and Megan, the gold standard that we have in clinical medicine is what we call the randomized control trial, where you randomize somebody to receiving an active intervention and a comparator intervention. And so, usually, when you're using medications, it's a medication versus a placebo. And placebo is not nothing. Placebo actually has some great benefits and there's interesting literature about the placebo effect. In fact, which includes the endocannabinoid system, which is curious. So, if you look at the literature of cannabis and cannabinoids and you restrict it to randomized clinical trials, you see a specific type, specific types of conditions for which it has pretty robust evidence. And so, not only is the randomized clinical trial, sort of our standard, our go to, what we'd like to see in medicine is larger trials versus smaller trials. And we also, of course, would like to see consistency across studies. Things that can be replicable. And these are some of the foundations of science. You need to be able to replicate a particular finding. So, for example, in the question about cannabis, in the setting of opioid-use disorder, there is good basic science evidence that there should be a mechanism by which THC, in particular, should have an opioid-sparing effect. And there's been some animal studies to suggest that this might be the case. And then some of the observational studies in in humans have not really born this out yet. And the cannabis, in the context of opioid-use disorder, there's one small randomized clinical trial that I'm aware of. And, there may be others, of course. This field is always changing. One small randomized clinical trial that shows some abatement, some decrease in withdrawal symptoms as people are moving from utilizing illicit opiates and shifting over towards opiate replacement therapy, which is called buprenorphine. And so, the challenges… that's a far cry from saying that cannabis is effective for opioid use disorder. Because, when we look at the evidence, also, we're having to pay attention to what the study studied? And so, this particular study studied the use of cannabis to abate opioid withdrawal symptoms, as a facilitator to getting on an evidence based treatment for opioid use disorder which is buprenorphine. And so, we're looking for… and to summarize… what we're looking for in medical evidence is, we're looking for the level of evidence. And we like to see randomized clinical trials. We're looking for consistency of evidence, so consistent findings across trials, run by different people in different settings and so on. We're looking for a strength of effect. And we're also paying attention to the specifics of how that trial was conducted. And we don't have all that much with regard to medical cannabis in that light. It’s furthermore very challenging, of course, to study medical cannabis in that light because of all the active constituents that are in cannabis. So that, I mean that's a brief snapshot of what we're looking for.
Megan Kamerick: sS, what are… given, given all that, what are your main concerns with the existing medical cannabis program here in New Mexico, which has been around for, since 2008, 2007 and the potential to legalize recreational cannabis?
Brant Hager: Sure, sure. Yeah. Well, almost all other areas of medicine follow a certain stepwise progression, as we learn about new treatments and implement new treatment. For example, we just today, actually it was just yesterday, the New England Journal of Medicine just published the first clinical trial data from the coronavirus vaccine. The Pfizer Biontech vaccine. And that was a very important milestone in moving forward with initiating this treatment in a broad-based fashion. So, we like to see these kinds of studies in medicine, to know what we're getting into, so that we can advise people about risks and benefits. And the medical cannabis program does stipulate that when you certify somebody for the medical cannabis program, that you’re certifying that the person has a diagnosis and that you've discussed the risks and benefits with the person. We know quite a bit about adverse effects from recreational cannabis. We know quite a bit about adverse effects from pharmaceutically-prepared cannabinoids. We don't know all that much about the risks to people who are using cannabis for these specified purposes. We don't know if the risk is greater than or less than the pharmaceutically- prepared cannabis. We don't know whether or not the risk is greater than or less than for the same things with regard to people who are using recreational cannabis. So, primarily the concern is about a lack of good data to guide people. That's one concern. The other concern is that the level of evidence required for inclusion of a condition in the medical cannabis program, first off, it's not stipulated in the law. The law does not stipulate that a certain level of evidence is required to, for a condition to be included. It basically states that the medical cannabis advisory board will hear evidence pro and con and based upon those discussions, will recommend or not recommend. And there are a number of conditions on the medical cannabis program for which there's really, there's a lack of randomized clinical trials to support their use. And so, we‘re stuck in a situation where there's questions about its usefulness from a systematic standpoint and also questions about its risks from a systematic standpoint. But, when I had reached out to you all. I had shared a sort of an aphorism that's used in clinical medicine, which is that the plural of anecdote does not equal evidence and what this means is, of course, that anecdotes are very important. When people have an experience with a particular thing, like, for example, if a person has a good experience with medical cannabis, that's a very important data point. It's especially important for that person because it's their life and their experience. It's also important for their providers to pay attention to that experience. And, when you want to generalize from that experience, that experience becomes a testable hypothesis that you try to test across a large group of people. And right now, what we have is a number of conditions that have basic science evidence, maybe some case series, maybe one small randomized clinical trial and maybe that randomized clinical trial is not even using medical cannabis. It's using a pharmaceutical cannabis preparation. And so, it's very difficult to advise people, accurately, about the risks and benefits and it's very difficult to recommend or not recommend for particular conditions. Those are the primary concerns that I have.
Andy Lyman: This question… it's a good time to also add in that disclaimer that I mentioned at the beginning, again. We're talking to Dr. Hager, who works for UNM, but very clearly is not speaking for UNM. So, given that, I don't think you are doing clinical work. Maybe you are, but let's just hypothetically say, you're seeing a patient, comes to you and says, “I've heard all these things. Here's all these studies.” And, I guess it's, the hypothetical is hard because there's physical symptoms or physical conditions and sort of psychological symptoms, but what would that conversation sort of sound like between you and a patient who is seeking that medication?
Brant Hager: You know, it would sound a lot like the conversation we're having right now. Probably not getting as much in the weeds in terms of the depth of the evidence based and so on. It would probably… usually when I have these conversations, because I have these conversations with patients all the time. Usually, it starts off with a discussion about, you know, what we know about the benefits of individual cannabinoids and what we know about the benefits of the cannabis whole plant, preparations for, or the preparations that are available, not whole plant, for specific medical conditions. What we know about risks from the clinical trials and what we know about risk from the epidemiologic standpoint that I was sharing with you before. And then an assessment of what their experiences with cannabis in their lives. What their experience has been like, in the past. Whether they're experiencing any the adverse effects that have been demonstrated from these clinical trials or these epidemiologically-observed adverse effects. What adverse effects to watch out for. An agreement to collaborate closely on strain selection and on monitoring for adverse effects. An agreement to watch out for the development of a cannabis use disorder. So, it's basically, it's not dissimilar to risk benefit discussions with any other treatment. It's just, also has a twist to it because of the lack of good information.
Megan Kamerick: Is it your fear that people might be using cannabis for everything… that, it's the qualifying conditions that are on the New Mexico medical cannabis program and they might be using it for something that we don't have robust clinical data for? And, I mean, maybe it works, maybe it doesn't. But, they're then not pursuing another more efficacious treatment for what they're dealing with?
Brant Hager: Sometimes I see that. Sometimes I see, sort of, moving towards cannabis and not exploring the treatments that have more robust evidence for it. And people have different reasons for doing that. I certainly don't begrudge somebody their choice to move in that direction. I think, say for example, somebody comes in with opioid use disorder. Let's take an example for something that has a really robust evidence base for four different types of treatments. And somebody comes in for opioid-use disorder and request medical cannabis diagnostic certification for opioid-use disorder. And say, over time, the concern is that cannabis alone is not likely to abate the opioid-use disorder in a way that leads to opioid decreases and reduction of harm and reduction of overdose risk. I don't know of any clinical trials that have demonstrated that cannabis will reduce the risk of say opioid overdose death. And so, in that circumstance, there could be a concern if somebody's like, well, no, I just want to treat with cannabis and, you know, I don't want to pursue medication-assisted treatment. Now we work, in psychiatry and medicine in general, we work all the time with people's ambivalence as towards different treatments. Right? And that's part of our job, is to help educate and help motivate and help people move towards different types of treatments. So that's, sort of, a high-profile example. One of the things that concerns me is that, the functional way that I've seen a number of people interact, psychologically speaking, with the medical cannabis program, is there sometimes can be a thought like, well, here's the list of certifying conditions. The state has certified these, or has, sort of, said these are qualifying conditions. Therefore, there must be good evidence for this. There can be an assumption that because they're included that there is as robust evidence as there is for any other treatment that we suggest. So, some of the functionalities are concerning as well.
Andy Lyman: I've got a question for you, and I apologize because I'm probably going to make you sort of defend the, just psychiatrists across the globe, but as I talk to folks, I hear, sort of, these… the sentiment of, sort of, distrust for psychiatrists or other sort of doctors, who they sort of perceive might be getting funding by quote, big pharma. And, I know in your case working for UNM, and again, last disclaimer here, that you're not speaking for UNM, but I'm pretty sure UNM has some pretty staunch guidelines as far as taking money from companies.
Brant Hager: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Andy Lyman: But, what do you have to say about that in general, for maybe a private practice psychiatrist. Does that cloud their judgment?
Brant Hager: Well, I think it's a very reasonable concern to express. You know, my medical school and the current university that I work for and, of course, I'm not speaking on their behalf, is, both of them have very strict rules about the influence of pharmaceutical companies in education and in practice, in clinical practice. Now, it's no, it's no secret that most of the large randomized clinical trials are being run by pharmaceutical companies who have a financial stake in pursuing efficacy and in pursuing profit. That's the reason why pharmaceutical companies are in business, in addition to desires to help people in advanced therapeutics. And one of the rhetorical questions that comes to mind to me is to say, if we are asking pharmaceutical companies to foot the bill for, not all, but many of these large clinical trials, why don't we ask people who stand to benefit financially from medical cannabis to also foot the bill for large clinical trials? And what would, you know, wouldn't we know more about that? And I see… I think that that could be very beneficial. I know the governor has, I don't know if she initiated this, or she certainly proposed the formation of a, like a research fund. I'm not sure… I didn't quite catch whether or not it got approved. Do you all know?
Andy Lyman: I'm not sure about that. I couldn't say.
Brant Hager: Yeah. Um, so, yes. I think it's a very reasonable criticism of medicine in general, is that you know, a lot of the influence in the medical literature is being driven by pharmaceutical companies. Now, that being said, if you look, for example, in the herbal medicine literature, you can see tremendous numbers of examples of good, well run, randomized clinical trials of fairly good size, using different herbal preparations, some of which are funded by the preparer of the herbal preparation, but some of which are just funded by academic centers. And, if other areas of herbal medicine can commit to going forward with this, it would seem to me that we might want to ask the medical cannabis industry to commit to going forward with this as well.
Andy Lyman: I think we are… do you have another question, Megan?
Megan Kamerick: I was just… I didn't know if you saw it. There was a question I saw from someone on Facebook that I… from Almay, who's interested in learning more about what scientific evidence do we have about the positive and negative effects of specific terpenes or how they may have very different effects?
Brant Hager: Yeah. Yeah, that one is, I mean, there's a huge potential for exploring all of these individual terpenes. There's some really interesting information about linalool and anxiety. Linalool is the terpene that is also found in lavender and there's some interesting information about Lymonene and its attenuation of some of the adverse effects of cannabis intoxication. Those are the two that are coming to mind just right off the top of my head. But yeah, there's huge, huge open questions. And just to highlight the impact of the terpenes in this. So, there's a there's a clinical trial that’s about to come out. They've sort of hinted at the results in a previous publication. This clinical trial looked at cannabis, various cannabis preparations in about 80 veterans with PTSD. And they took a look at high THC, high CBD cannabis, high THC, low CBD cannabis and then high CBD, low THC cannabis and then what they call placebo cannabis, which was low THC, low CBD. And over the course of the, I think it was a five-week study they, they saw no differences in terms of PTSD improvements between the groups. All the groups, I think improved, but no differences. So, this really opens a question about, like if there's a benefit in PTSD, what's driving it? Is it THC? Is it CBD? Is it the terpenes? Is it the flavonoids? We don't know. And these are really important questions.
Megan Kamerick: Well, do you… as you know, we're going to be debating legalization in the next legislative session. Do you have a stance, whether we should move forward legalizing recreational or should we be thinking… things that we should be thinking about in that legislation?
Brant Hager: Well, I think, certainly, paying attention to some of the known risks would be important. For example, paying attention to the impact that it may have on traffic safety and traffic fatalities. How do we mitigate that? Because it's something that we've observed epidemiological from other places that have legalized cannabis for recreational use. How do we, how do we help people who are at high risk for developing schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders? How do we help them to make choices for themselves, but also choices based upon information about the risks and the benefits of recreational cannabis use? I think, mostly, taking a harm reduction approach, I think, is important. I think the cannabis legalization is probably inexorable. I mean, that's been the movements throughout the country. And it just continues to increase. I think it's inexorable. So, I think it's more about how do we do it safely?
Andy Lyman: To wrap things up… just to, you know, this was a little extra for “growing forward,” the podcast collaboration between New Mexico PBS and New Mexico Political Report. We just spent time talking to Dr. Brant Hager, psychiatrist in New Mexico. So, thank you dr. Hager for joining us and giving us your vast knowledge.
Brant Hager: Yeah. Thank you both.
Megan Kamerick: Yeah, it was really interesting. Thank you very much.
Brant Hager: Yeah, you're welcome.
This week, we conclude Season 1 with a good 'ole batch of holiday leftovers. We covered a lot in this first season, but there are still plenty of issues left to discuss when it comes to New Mexico's existing medical cannabis program and the potential for a recreational-use market if lawmakers approve legalization in 2021. Hosts Andy Lyman and Megan Kamerick discuss everything from revenue projections, to banking challenges for cannabis-related businesses and much more!
Blue Dot Sessions - "Lupi"
Blue Dot Sessions - "Pastel De Nata"
Chad Couch - "Wilsons Snipe"
Christian Bjoerklund - "Hallon"
Poddington Bear - "Good Times"
Andy Lyman: I’m Andy Lyman, a reporter with New Mexico Political Report.
Megan Kamerick: I’m Megan Kamerick, a correspondent with New Mexico PBS and this is Growing Forward, a collaboration between New Mexico PBS and New Mexico Political Report.
Andy Lyman: This week, in our final episode of the season, we’ll be tackling some things we just didn’t get to.
Patty Lindley: I do expect there to be some extra scrutiny on the program. So, we're prepared for that. We have all of our ducks in a row and we don't expect to see any problems with that. But I do think they're going to be watching this program pretty closely.
Kelly O’Donnell: I think that part of the appeal of cannabis taxes for states is that although, certainly, state residents will be consuming a large portion of the product that's marketed, it's also a significant tourism draw.
Megan Kamerick: Here we are, our final episode… We’ve covered so much so far, but there’s still so much we didn’t get to.
Andy Lyman: Even with ten episodes, we just couldn’t squeeze everything in. I think it’s safe to say, Megan, you and I have learned so much about cannabis in New Mexico.
Megan Kamerick: You already knew a lot, Andy, but I was a neophyte and our hope in joining forces to do this podcast was for me to stand in for the listener while you kind of guided us through this world.
Andy Lyman: Well, I have been covering medical cannabis for a while now, it’s been mostly reporting on the political arguments. And, I know it sounds cliche, but I really do find myself learning new things about this world all the time.
Megan Kamerick: You know, one issue we didn’t get to dive really deep into is how banking fits into all of this.
Andy Lyman: It’s a tricky subject and even though we may not have included it in our previous episodes, a lot of the cannabis industry folks seemed a little leery about discussing how they deal with money.
Megan Kamerick: Banking in the cannabis industry gets complicated by the fact that cannabis is still federally illegal and as such, banks have historically tried to distance themselves from the industry. In the first states that legalized recreational cannabis there were crazy stories of entrepreneurs driving around with tens of thousands of dollars in their car trunks. We spoke with Patty Lindley, the director of compliance and quality at U.S. Eagle Federal Credit Union, which is trying to serve this industry with some niche products.
Andy Lyman: Patty, thanks for joining us.
Patty Lindley: Thank you for having me.
Andy Lyman: Can you give us a history of the problems with cannabis in the banking industry and explain why the banks have may have been hesitant to take on cannabis companies as clients?
Patty Lindley: Well, I think the toughest challenge that we face is, of course, the federal regulations that we have to comply with. The main one is the Bank Secrecy Act and the Bank Secrecy Act says that a financial institution should not be involved with any individuals who could be involved in any illegal activity, so we cannot take funds from illicit activity either. So, it's a fine line because cannabis is legalized in New Mexico. But we also have to follow those federal guidelines as well.
Andy Lyman: That fine line seems to have created issues with the medical cannabis producers and some of them got, let’s say... creative. Through my reporting, I’ve heard, anecdotally, that some producers basically told their banks they were selling flowers or that they ran a botanical business.
Patty Lindley: We've seen that as well in our in our organization, where they open an account under a name that it is not obvious that they're connected to the cannabis industry and they don't really tell us exactly what they do. There are risks with that. And the thing that they don't realize, though, is that we have some pretty advanced monitoring systems that we use. Most businesses today don't deal in large amounts of cash where, of course, in the cannabis industry, because they're limited on their banking services, they tend to deal more in cash. So, large amounts of cash going through an account is usually a huge red flag that something else is going on. And it will bring that account to our attention so that we can look at it more closely. The risk there is, if they haven't been truthful with us when they open the account, they risk getting those accounts shut down. And that's what they've been facing for years. So, we wanted to offer them a solution to where they could be completely open and honest with us. In fact, it's expected and we're going to let them just do what they need to do so that they can focus on their business and they're not constantly focusing on their banking issues.
Megan Kamerick: Patty says her organization has been looking into this issue for quite a while, with the goal of providing a safe place for medical cannabis companies in New Mexico to keep their money.
Patty Lindley: So, we began our process of evaluating whether we wanted to get into offering these services about two years ago. And we contacted other experts in the industry. We did just a lot of due diligence before we even took it to our board for approval. So, it's been about two years in process. About a year ago, we got approved to move forward with it, and then we had the difficult task of finding staff, training them on all the regulations and actually building the program. The due diligence process for these is where we focused on. We really wanted to build this on a foundation of compliance. We wanted to make sure that we were going to be here for the long haul. We wanted to make sure that five years, 10 years down the line, we weren't being shut down by our federal regulators. So, we wanted to make sure everything that we do is very compliant and very transparent, transparency between us and our customers. We call them members and then very transparent with us and our regulators. There is quite a due diligence process in order to have these accounts and make sure that we are monitoring the money that's coming in so that we can report back to the government that nothing illicit is going on.
Andy Lyman: Patty also told us that the credit union is not only providing a place to keep their money, but also provides an armored car pick-up service and even special debit cards associated with these cannabis bank accounts... all to help these companies avoid dealing with huge amounts of cash.
Megan Kamerick: It’s almost like a special, niche bank within a bank.
Patty Lindley: We also developed a separate division, we created the Aare group. Aare group is our cannabis division. We have a separate location for them, these employees. This is all they do. They can become specialists in the area and they're not dealing with the regular type of business that most people in a financial institution will deal with. Everything that they're doing focuses strictly on the banking for this industry. They're not having to take loan applications. They're not having to do notaries for other, just anybody that walks in the door. They're able to focus solely on their particular members. We set up a private banking model for this. Each member that comes in, gets assigned a banker, someone that is there for them whenever they have questions, to help them with their transactions, whatever their needs are, they have a point of contact. They have someone that they can call and get things taken care.
Megan Kamerick: That's a significant investment.
Patty Lindley: It really is, but we felt it was worth it.
Megan Kamerick: One thing we touched on briefly in a previous episode is how cannabis is classified on the federal level. So many of our conversations so far seem to all come back to, “Well, it’s still illegal federally.”
Andy Lyman: It does seem to always come back to that, doesn’t it? A lot of people may already know that cannabis is a schedule one drug. But not everyone may really understand what that means. We spoke with Emily Kaltenbach, director of the Drug Policy Alliance in New Mexico to try and better understand what schedule one is and why cannabis is in that category.
Emily Kaltenbach: Schedule one basically means that there's no medicinal or therapeutic value for a substance. And we know that that's not the case for cannabis. And if you look at how many of our U.S. states now have some sort of legal cannabis option, whether that's medical or full legalization. So, we know that the research and the anecdotal evidence shows that people, it does have some medicinal values. So, there's been a long battle to take cannabis off of schedule one. There are different proposals out there. One is just to reduce it to a lower schedule, right? that shows that it does have some medicinal value, but still is controlled in a medical setting. We really advocate for the de-scheduling, because if you just reschedule and lower it on the controlled substance, then it still has to be very tightly regulated in a way that would really limit individuals’ access, especially patients, medical patients’ access.
Megan Kamerick: Listeners may remember when we spoke to state Representative Javier Martinez. He talked about how the term marijuana is rooted in racism. Emily says it’s the same case for why the federal government classified cannabis as one of the most dangerous drugs.
Emily Kaltenbach: Marijuana was really used as a racist term to incarcerate Latinos and Hispanics in our country. And, you know, if you go back to Nixon's war on drugs, we know that the war on drugs was really used to control and to incarcerate people of color. And so really, the reason it's on that schedule is because of the racist history of our drug war. And we also show that cannabis is not a gateway drug. And so, there can definitely be dependency, but there isn't the same sort of addictive quality that we might see in other substances. So, again, it's really misplaced. And that's because of racism and politics and not because of science.
Andy Lyman: Can you tell us about the different kinds of things Drug Policy Alliance advocates for, just in general?
Emily Kaltenbach: We've been in New Mexico, now, over 20 years. And our core policy advocacy is really about shifting away from the criminalization of drug use into a health-centered approach. And then, also, reducing the harms, right, both the prohibition and of drug use. So, it could be from overdose prevention to drug education for young people to really reforming our criminal justice system, including the legalization of cannabis.
Andy Lyman: Emily says the Drug Policy Alliance is pushing for legislation that would include a path for small businesses to get into the potential recreational-use market, while at the same time helping those who have been negatively impacted by previous and current drug laws.
Emily Kaltenbach: The reason we are supporting the legalization is really about re-investing back into communities that have been most harmed by prohibition and also creating some equity in the marketplace. Because, we know if we look at other states over the last oh, gosh, now it's been, what, eight years? There's a lot to learn about who's actually allowed into that space and who's making money. So, over the years that we've been involved in advocating, we've tried to build in some really key provisions, again, some around equity. So, we want to see small business allowed in. Who can get equity and who can't is a really important question. And so, if we can create a licensing system that allows micro businesses to be included, that have, in-scaling license fees based on the size of business is really critical. When you look at other states that actually some of the revenue goes back to helping build some of that capital and doing some business development, that could be really important as we build out. And also, some of the small family farms in New Mexico, we should figure out how to really allow them to have some entry into the industry. And then on the other side is about, how do we expunge, automatically, really expunge the records of folks who have been charged and incarcerated and prosecuted for crimes that are now made legal under this bill. So, we want to go back and right some of those harms. So, there's an automatic expungement provision that we're advocating for, again, some of the revenue going back into the communities that have been most harmed. And then, there are some specific things around, you know, no one should lose benefits, public benefits, because of their cannabis use or search and seizures by police shouldn't be based on the smell of cannabis in a car.
Megan Kamerick: Even outside of our work for this podcast, it seems like we keep hearing about how much money we, as a state, can make if we legalized cannabis.
Andy Lyman: That’s definitely been a selling point from people like Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. I know this has been a long year and the Legislature’s special session seems like it was years ago, but it was only about nine months ago that the Legislature was trying to figure out if our state would make it through the pandemic, financially.
Megan Kamerick: Earlier this year our state was facing some serious financial problems after a plunge in oil prices compounded with a screeching halt to the state’s economy. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham opined, at that time, that if the Legislature had approved recreational-use cannabis, we might have had a financial cushion.
Andy Lyman: At least one economist agrees that cannabis sales could generate some serious tax revenue.
Kelly O’Donnell: The potential revenue to be generated by taxes on recreational cannabis are high, there's no question about that.
Megan Kamerick: That’s Kelly O’Donnell, an economist and research professor at the University of New Mexico. She says the actual amount of potential tax revenue simply comes down to decisions by lawmakers.
Kelly O’Donnell: To a large extent, the actual, absolute magnitude of the revenue generated is going to depend on a number of factors and most specifically, the type of taxes that are levied in the context of legalization. I mean, obviously, part of legalization is going to be developing a taxation scheme for recreational cannabis. And the other part is going to be developing a functioning legal market that produces enough product for folks to consume and generates adequate revenue for the state. So, there's a lot of moving pieces. That said, we have estimated in the past that, assuming a fairly functional regulatory structure and a tax rate of 15, 20 percent, we're looking probably at close to one hundred million dollars a year, assuming, again, a fully functioning, robust, mature market for recreational cannabis.
Andy Lyman: To what extent we tax recreational-use cannabis is sure to be a topic of debate next year. But O’Donnell says dialing in the tax rate is sort of a balancing act. If we tax it too much, people may turn to the illicit market, which means less revenue to the state and well, a burgeoning illicit market.
Kelly O’Donnell: I think that a lot of the states that legalized relatively early started with even higher tax rates. And there's actually been a movement to reduce those tax rates somewhat. A major objective for many states in legalizing cannabis is to crowd out the illegal market. If tax rates are too high, then you can't really crowd out the illegal market because the legal product remains too expensive. So, but 20 percent seems like the level at which a lot of states are sort of arriving after making adjustments and realizing the realities of the market.
Andy Lyman: I had mentioned a moment ago that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham brought up legal cannabis tax revenue earlier this year, with a kind of “Coulda, woulda, shoulda” take on the whole thing. Which is kind of true, but we should remind everyone that putting together a tax plan can take a while.
Megan Kamerick: We spoke with Andrew Oxford, a reporter with the Arizona Republic, for a bonus episode. If you haven’t already, please go back and listen to that conversation. But we talked to Andrew about how Arizona voters approved, by nearly 60 percent, a measure to legalize recreational-use cannabis.
Andy Lyman: The proposition includes a 16 percent excise tax provision, so it seems like Arizona is well on its way towards seeing some revenue in the next couple of years. We spoke to O’Donnell about the impacts of neighboring states with full legalization in place prior to the election, but I think her sentiment here is still relevant.
Kelly O’Donnell: This is something of a race against the clock in the sense that those states that were early adopters like Colorado have already generated revenue over a number of years. Their market has had time to mature and for supply and demand to somewhat come into balance at lower prices. So, there is a lot of lead time that's required if you're going to legalize. We need to be cognizant of what's going on in surrounding states so that we can, again, maximize the revenue we obtain and have a competitive market.
Andy Lyman: I recently wrote about how Arizona’s legalizing cannabis may impact New Mexico. You can find that story at nmpoliticalreport.com, but the consensus of the people I spoke with was that 2021 is the year for New Mexico to legalize cannabis, if the concern is competing with Arizona for tourism dollars. But O’Donnell says that may not be a worry for New Mexico.
Kelly O’Donnell: The tourism advantage conferred by being an early legalizer will be temporary. But, the overall boost to the tourism sector, I would assume that it would result in a boost to the tourism sector. That boost will diminish over time, but will still be positive so it won't go away completely and really, until Texas legalizes, we should be golden. I mean, when Texas legalizes, that will really change things quite a lot. But until then, and that doesn't seem to be imminent, this could be an important source of revenue.
Megan Kamerick: Tax revenue will likely be the selling point for opponents of legalization, but then we get into this debate over where that money should go. In previous attempts to pass a legalization bill there were debates over earmarks. As a state, we’ve also seen earmarks for things being diverted to other places. O’Donnell says that while touting legalization as revenue for specific things like public safety or drug treatment is popular, the best plan of action may be to send cannabis tax revenue to the state’s main account.
Kelly O’Donnell: It may take a while to materialize, but that displacement is almost bound to happen. And generally speaking, if you're looking for revenue, general fund revenue, it's best to put it in the general fund and let the legislatures from year to year decide how to spend it. That makes the most sense. Now, earmarking the money might be a little more politically expedient because then there's that sort of immediate link in people's minds between legalization and revenue to address other social ills. But ultimately, I think it probably ties the hands of the legislature more than it actually benefits the intended beneficiaries.
Megan Kamerick: Andy, we’ve gone over so many topics so far and of course today we’re talking about issues we haven’t addressed in previous episodes. So, are there any other areas you see getting addressed in the next session?
Andy Lyman: One topic that is pretty complicated and that’s already seen a fair amount of debate is how, under the current medical program, youth patients can get access to their medicine while at school.
Megan Kamerick: Yeah, it’s kind of easy to forget during the pandemic, but children actually did go to school in the past.
Andy Lyman: It’s also easy to overlook the fact that there are a number of medical cannabis patients who are children. And the parents of those children often have a tough time working out how to get medication to their kids. Here’s Emily Kaltenbach again….
Emily Kaltenbach: Unfortunately, for many years, if you were a child and you had a medical condition and cannabis, you were using cannabis from a therapeutic perspective, you couldn't use that on school property. So, there were stories of… really heartbreaking. I have a seven-year-old, so I totally can relate to some of these parents who sat in parking lots. They may have a child that had epilepsy and had… and the use of cannabis would actually stop those seizures immediately, that could be very dangerous. So, they'd sit in the parking lot and they'd get a call from the teacher if their child was seizing. They would run in, grab the kid, put them in the car, drive off campus and administer the medicine. We wouldn't require that for any other medicine. And so, what ended up happening is some of these kids were just pulled out of school and weren't having equal access to their education. So, we did pass a bill a couple of years ago to allow that cannabis to administered on school property. But it comes with a lot of caveats, right, of who can administer it? If a school district worried that they'd lose federal funding, they could opt out. It was it's very problematic. And still, I think there are some concerns… there are other states that have model… Colorado has a model that we think loosely followed, but that's still an issue, unfortunately.
Andy Lyman: This issue really got some traction during the 2019 legislative session when lawmakers made arguably the most changes to the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act since it was established. Allowing medical cannabis on public school grounds was a big change and made many parents happy, I’m sure. But it was individual school districts that raised concerns about whether school employees would be forced to administer this substance that is still federally illegal.
Megan Kamerick: So, what was the final decision or compromise on that?
Andy Lyman: The final bill, which was signed into law by Gov. Lujan Grisham, ultimately left a lot of decision- making power to the Public Education Department in their rule-making process. So now, if a school district is concerned with losing federal funds because it allows medical cannabis on school grounds, they can apply for an exemption, although to my knowledge, no one has done that. But, school districts can also still decide whether employees are the ones to administer medical cannabis or not.
Megan Kamerick: So, it’s not school nurses administering it?
Andy Lyman: No, my understanding is that school districts around the state have taken the stance that it’s up to parents to come give their kids the medical cannabis a doctor has recommended.
Megan Kamerick: Is there a solution to this?
Andy Lyman: Emily says she expects the issue to come up again during the 2021 legislative session. Another way this gets addressed, she says, is through the courts.
Emily Kaltenbach: You know, two years ago was really the first time we opened up and made major amendments to the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act and they were good steps forward, but they weren't perfect. We've seen this, right, on reciprocity, you know, that was just an issue in the courts, whether out-of-state patients are allowed to purchase, that their cards be recognized here, you know, things like that. And so, I think they're going to be a lot of fixes and this one included.
Megan Kamerick: That sounds like school districts could lose that autonomy they have right now.
Andy Lyman: Yes, but we still have little to no idea how many legislators will draw a line in the sand and take over that decision-making power from school districts. Speaking of autonomy, another issue we didn’t really get a chance to dig into is whether counties and municipalities across the state could opt out of legalization.
Megan Kamerick: Emily says there’s good reason not to allow an opt-out provision in any legalization bills.
Emily Kaltenbach: We've seen in other states that Colorado, another example of being able to opt out… we're advocating that counties can't opt out, because what you do and actually law enforcement has brought the same issue up, is you create a checkerboard of enforcement. And in a state like New Mexico, I think that's problematic. It may happen in New Mexico, I think that's going to be an argument for this coming year. I would advocate, instead of opting out, that those counties can have some local control over some of the rules, right? But they have to be reasonable time, place and manner, rules of where retail establishments can be or advertising or things like that. And so, the other, I mean, the other downside to having opt out is that a lot of those counties then won't recoup any of the local excise tax money. And in the last bill, it was up to three to four percent that could be collected by a city or county. And those, there were no strings attached to those revenue dollars. So, they could be put back into whatever that local community would need. And so, what would happen is you'd have one county that opted out that didn't have any revenue. The next county over opted in, was getting revenue. But, any kinds of enforcement dollars that would go to enforcement or public health, you know, that would spill over into the next county. And so, I think it just creates a more complex patchwork of… anyways, just a patchwork at checkerboard, so if you also, look at Colorado, some of those local communities have put their tax dollars into some really innovative things, like whether that's sending their kids to college with that or revitalizing some of the downtown areas that were really hit hard by the economic downturn. So, of the last decade, so, I think there are benefits for these communities. And then the last thing I would say is that it also provides more access for medical cannabis patients that I mentioned earlier. So, if we're requiring the adult use side to also provide medical, then we'll see more access around the state.
Megan Kamerick: Before we wrap-up our last episode, we should also touch on an issue that is for sure going to be a topic of debate next year… and that is driving while high.
Andy Lyman: Even in years when legalization is not seriously being considered, I’ve seen lots of bills trying to address how to measure levels of impairment from things other than alcohol.
Megan Kamerick: As Emily explains here, there’s not really a reliable test yet that can show with any kind of accuracy how impaired a person on cannabis is.
Emily Kaltenbach: We don't need new laws because it's already illegal to drive while you're impaired, whether you bought it on the illicit, in the illicit market or in the legal market. And so, I think people forget that, right? That it's already against the law to be driving impaired if you use cannabis. What we don't have that we have on the alcohol side is a really, it's a fast test to show impairment, right? Because alcohol and cannabis work differently in the body. And so, the breathalyzer can show actual impairment. It doesn't work for cannabis, but it hasn't worked for cannabis for a long time. And we know lots of people are using cannabis and purchasing it in the illicit side and potentially driving. And so, we need to have a better way to measure impairment, period. Whether that's because you didn't sleep the night before, whether that's, you're using a prescription drug that you actually are allowed to use but are driving, whether that's cannabis or alcohol. So, I think states are starting to figure out how to do this well. But I would say that the data does not support that there's been a huge increase in fatalities because of cannabis alone.
Megan Kamerick: Well, Andy, here we are about ready to wrap up our final episode…
Andy Lyman: It’s been quite a journey. I just want to take a second and thank you Megan for all you’ve done for this collaboration.
Megan Kamerick: Right back at you, Andy. As we’ve said before, Growing Forward is a collaboration between New Mexico Political Report and New Mexico PBS...
Andy Lyman: At the end of every episode we always make sure to mention that this whole podcast wouldn’t be possible without a grant provided by the New Mexico Local News Fund, but I also just want to offer a huge thanks to one of our producers, Kevin McDonald. He was really instrumental in getting this thing off the ground.
Megan Kamerick: And, of course, as always, thanks to our other producer, Bryce Dix, for all of his hard work in editing each episode and really making this project sound so great.
Andy Lyman: And just before we go, of course, thank you to all the listeners out there...If you have any unanswered questions still, shoot us GrowingForward, all one word, at nmpbs.org.
Eric Merryman: The initial efforts and ongoing efforts helped my mom. It brought her some peace. It brought her the ability to not be sick all the time.
Dominic Garcia: A lot of folks, you know, they might have dabbled in the 70s or 80s. This might be, you know, a return to the use for pain relief. So, you know, the science of medical cannabis has come a long way.
Megan Kamerick: The science of medical cannabis has indeed come a long way, and that may leave many New Mexicans overwhelmed by all the different strains and interesting names, as well as their uses and the entire retail experience.
Andy Lyman: This week, we take a field trip to a local dispensary and a manufacturing facility to show you what they’re like and the challenges these businesses face as new mexico again prepares to take up the issue of legalizing recreational-use cannabis.
Andy Lyman: I'm Andy Lyman, Reporter with New Mexico Political Report.
Megan Kamerick: And I’m Megan Kamerick, Correspondent with New Mexico PBS, and this is Growing Forward, a podcast dedicated to the cannabis industry in New Mexico. This project is also a collaboration between NMPBS and New Mexico Political Report.
Andy Lyman: The medical cannabis program has been around for years now in New Mexico, but it can still be daunting to navigate your way through the system after getting a medical cannabis card.
Megan Kamerick: That’s right. And now there is new pressure for lawmakers in New Mexico to also approve the legalization of recreational-use cannabis. That’s because Arizona voters approved an initiative legalizing recreational use just a few weeks ago. If New Mexico wants to capitalize on the revenue benefits of legalizing the drug, the time is definitely now.
Andy Lyman: And, if they’re successful, that’s a whole new group of people trying to find their way through the complicated maze of dispensaries, strains, doses and much more.
Megan Kamerick: That’s why we headed out of the studio this week, to introduce you to that world and all its nuances.
Andy Lyman: You know, Megan, I grew up watching PBS, especially Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Today’s episode actually reminds me a little of when Mr. Rogers would take viewers to a factory or some other kind of field trip.
Megan Kamerick: It does sort of feel that way... Although I’m trying to get the picture of Mr. Rogers going to the cannabis store out of my head. Anyway, a few weeks ago, we got a tour of an Albuquerque cannabis dispensary. We also got to see a manufacturing facility where a company makes extracts and edibles. Believe it or not, it really is similar to those field trips on Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, but instead of watching how crayons are made or seeing how cows are milked on a dairy farm, we got the lowdown on gummies, chocolate, honey extracts.... There’s just a huge variety and honestly, Andy, I just had no idea.
Andy Lyman: We are right out front of a dispensary in Albuquerque, called R. Greenleaf. We’re right, sort of, Washington and Menaul area. And, it’s actually part of a little strip. Looks like right next door there’s a boot store. And, I’m not sure what’s at the end, but it’s sort of unassuming. Did you know that this was here before?
Megan Kamerick: Not until you told me about it.
Andy Lyman: Yeah.
Megan Kamerick: i’ve driven by it a million times. It’s very non-descript.
Andy Lyman: The windows are, sort of, tinted in a way that’s mirrored. You can’t see inside. It’s just part of, sort of, a little commercial stretch of Menaul, I’d say.
(door opens and closes)
Andy Lyman: Megan, when we first walked in the door, you almost immediately noticed something different...
Megan Kamerick: Yeah, the smell... It was strong and very distinct – way more intense than being at a random concert.
Andy Lyman: It was very clear we had just walked into a dispensary, before we could even see the menu or display cases. But, visually, I wonder if anyone would know, from the outside, what’s actually happening inside.
Megan Kamerick: I definitely didn’t know. I’ve driven by that spot so many times. It’s in a generic looking strip mall next to a boot store. But I guess that’s by design, Andy?
Andy Lyman: It could be. I know some folks are concerned about security, but I think it also provides some normalcy to patients as well. Our tour guide that day was Dominic Garcia, the director of retail operations for Reynold Greenleaf and Associates. Listeners may remember that some dispensaries are under a management company. It may be a little confusing, but Reynold Greenleaf and Associates, a management company, manages R. Greenleaf, a cannabis producer.
Megan Kamerick: Dominic gave us a tour of an R. Greenleaf location, in sort of midtown Albuquerque. There’s a counter with sales associates to help patients. And behind them is a small window to a room where the product is actually prepared. That room is locked and not open to the public – or to us. Employees hand the cannabis products through that window to the sales associates out front. Dominc says it’s a little bit like Walgreen’s or CVS.
Dominic Garcia: So, this particular dispensary, for us, is, we have a pharmacy model. So, essentially, it'd be, you know, what you would think of a traditional pharmacy. Patients come in, they can have a consultation with any of our peer educators and be able to help determine what medicine is best for them. With that being said, we do offer, our menu, which is live. It's got, it's pretty much real time, also. It's on about a five-minute delay, if that. And that does connect to our mobile app, I’m sorry, our website that you can look mobily on. And it does have rates and what's available for any particular clinic.
Megan Kamerick: That menu he’s talking about is a huge electronic board hanging behind the sales counter. It sort of looks like a fast food menu. There are a handful of giant digital monitors, which Dominic said are updated in real time... Meaning that when they sell the last of a particular product, the system updates and takes the product off the screen.
Andy Lyman: We asked Dominic to describe what happens when a first time patient first walks in the door.
Dominic Garcia: So really, we just like to open the door with, what do you know about cannabis? A lot of folks, you know, they might have dabbled in the 70s or 80s. And, this might be, you know, a return to the use for pain relief. The science of medical cannabis has come a long way. It's not the same kind of cannabis I was probably privy to when I was in college, that sort of thing. It's a lot more potent and it's just a valuable medicine for a lot of folks.
Andy Lyman: Is there, is there any sort of experimenting, meaning that… because, if somebody hasn't used it for 20 years, maybe you want to try a little bit of this or try some different levels of THC, the CBD?
Dominic Garcia: Yeah, you know, a lot of times also the peer educator will ask about what their ailment is and then from there, they can help educate them from a point of also being a patient. So, again, none of our folks are really like nurse practitioners or anything to that effect. But, if someone has anxiety, they might be interested in indica. If someone just has, you know, motivation or they need help with focus, they might be leaning toward sativa. So really, it's just about asking those questions and being able to help find that right product. Again, we always like especially with edibles or some concentrates, start slow, because you can always add more and you don't ever want to get completely couch-locked or have an anxiety attack from, just over-consuming.
Megan Kamerick: As Dominic was showing us around the dispensary lobby, I spoke with Maria Chavez, who had just purchased some cannabis. She’s been a patient for 10 years.
Maria Chavez: Yes, and it helps my diabetes and my neuropathy. And I play basketball for the senior league. So, the doctor can't believe that this stuff helped me play. I mean, I run and everything. I stay in shape.
Megan Kamerick: How old are you? Can I ask?
Maria Chavez: I'll be 73. 10/10.
Megan Kamerick: Wow. So what kind of product do you use?
Maria Chavez: I use Sativa and then I use Indica at night to relax me.
Megan Kamerick: And are you smoking it? Are you ingesting it?
Maria Chavez: I smoke it.
Megan Kamerick: And what started this… this is ten years ago. So, tell me about how you started that process or that journey?
Maria Chavez: Because I was hurting a lot and I was working. And then, it really got to me. And then my hands were bad because I worked at digital and then at intel. So, when I started smoking, it really helped. So that did it.
Megan Kamerick: Another thing I noticed right away is just the huge variety of products available and how each is designed to treat something different. This is light years away from the days of using a crushed beer can to make a bong.
Andy Lyman: And so, these here are…
Megan Kamerick: … chocolate bars.
Andy Lyman: … and over here is what you’d call it, vape pen. So, it's an oil liquid.
Dominic Garcia: Some of our edibles and topicals. So, we do offer salves, you know, for joint pain, headache rollers, suppositories.
Andy Lyman: I think maybe one thing that people don't realize is that topicals maybe have a different, quite a different effect than consuming it or ingesting it, right?
Dominic Garcia: A lot of it, again, it's probably not going to, have the, I use air quotes, high effect. Some topicals don't really cross the blood barrier. So, it's really just about the anti-inflammatory aspects of it.
Megan Kamerick: And is that, were those suppositories or were those injectibles?
Dominic Garcia: No, they’re suppositories. So, again, for, any chronic pain, lower back pain, it's a wonderful product.
Megan Kamerick: So, what have been some of the innovations with the medical cannabis program, in terms of different forms people can use? I had no idea there were so many… (laughs)
Dominic Garcia: Yeah, I mean, I think it's constantly evolving. And then it also, can vary based on how people like to consume and their tolerance levels. You do build up tolerance, so someone might you know, become a wax user, where there are different textures, also in that. So, it might be more like a sugar sauce or sometimes it could be almost like a brittle, which we call a shatter. So, little pieces broken off and then placed into a rig and smoked that way. So, it's a little bit more intense, a little bit quicker on the uptake. But again, it just depends on where you are in your cannabis therapy.
Andy Lyman: Do you know what's the, maybe we've already talked about this, the bigger seller for R. Greenleaf. I mean is it flowers?
Dominic Garcia: So, yeah, flowers. Flowers are, you know, our bread and butter, if you will. (undecipherable)
Andy Lyman: And what the patient didn't really get into when we talked to her, but I think maybe part of that is that it's… and you mentioned hitting it fast. Hitting you faster, right. And an edible is going to take as long as your body takes to digest it, right?
Dominic Garcia: Right, and typically an edible is going to be processed through the liver, where the traditional flower might be through... Will be through the lungs. So, you know, edible can be a little bit more potent sometimes because the whole thing is being processed. You know, if you're smoking, you do lose some on the exhale.
Andy Lyman: But we don't really have… we, as a society, don't have like an equivalent to having a drink. Like, you can't take a drink and it hits you like alcohol does. It's going to take probably an hour or so…
Dominic Garcia: And, you know, if you have a full stomach versus an empty stomach and the amount that you consume.
Megan Kamerick: It's not like, here, take these two Ibuprofen, it's got two hundred milligrams each. It's totally subjective… seems subjective.
Dominic Garcia: Well, it's a little trial and error at the beginning, but once you start finding what medicines are working best for you, again, you can always add more, start slow. That's a great piece of advice is just, you can always, you know, add more to it. But once you, you know, if you're overmedicated, sometimes to just wait it out. You know what your tolerance levels are.
Megan Kamerick: We weren’t able to get a tour of the back room where they actually dispense the cannabis. And instead of going to see a grow operation, we decided to go take a look at how plant material becomes extracts and edibles.
Jennifer Merryman: Oh, sure, this is our main building. This is our kitchen, and we're going through our locked ‘side b’ entry. We have several different entries for employees……
Andy Lyman: That’s Jennifer Merryman. She and her husband Eric own and operate Mountain Top Extracts, which is a medical cannabis manufacturing company.
Megan Kamerick: It’s another unassuming facility tucked away in the middle of an industrial area.
Jennifer Merryman: And, I’ll grab Eric…
Andy Lyman: You have a very compelling story about how you got into this industry. You kind of have a personal family story…
Eric Merryman: Five or six years ago, my mother was diagnosed with stage four fallopian tube cancer, out of the blue. All I ever remember about her health was she was always in shape, walked, hiked regularly, ate well. So, this was quite a shock, of course, to all of us. We had always been raised kind of with alternative medicines. And so, we did a lot of different treatments with her. I had never heard about cannabis for the treatment of cancer or the treatment of the residual issues that come with, you know, people on chemo or radiation therapy. At that point, she had not done any chemotherapy. My son, who is living in Arizona at the time, called me and asked me if I had heard of a product called Rick Simpson’s oil, and I hadn't. And he said, “well, you know, you should you should do some research into it, dad. This is something that might help my nana.” And so, I began that research.
Megan Kamerick: Eric said he went through the process to legally grow cannabis for his mother and began experimenting with what seemed to help her and started learning about how to extract beneficial substances from the plant. And, so began Eric’s journey into the world of cannabis extraction.
Eric Merryman: Once we got the genetics and started cultivating the high CBD content strains, then it was like, “OK, so how do I make this into a highly concentrated form of medicine?” Then, that opens up the whole world to extractions. And, there's several forms of extractions that exist and their use is common in our industry. My focus was on the preservation of those cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids from the moment that I harvested that plant until I put that oil into the capsule. My research in different extraction methods and solvents led me to light hydrocarbon solvents, which are, in our industry, we're using butane, propane and isobutanes. Once I made that decision, then it opened up a whole other world in regards to the safety of that process, you know? And what does that take for me to make this medicine at home in a safe manner? So, not only the integrity of the medicine, but integrity of the extraction process. That's where mountain top started.
Megan Kamerick: Did you have a background in chemistry or anything? What was your background?
Eric Merryman: (laughs) I do not have a background in chemistry. I've been a, primarily, a general contractor, tool bags on type of contractor, all of my life. I've always been very interested in renewable fuels and renewable energies and so about, I want to say it's probably been 10 years ago, became very interested in biofuels, specifically biodiesel. I went to some classes up in Denver, both at, kind of a small cooperative level, as well as a full scale commercial-level, biofuels operation, because I had the intent of setting up a biodiesel facility here in New Mexico.
Andy Lyman: Listeners may have caught Eric’s comments about safety, particularly with the extraction process. Several years back, employees of a Santa Fe-based manufacturer were severely injured in an explosion. One of the ways to extract THC from plant material is by using butane, which of course is highly flammable. Several weeks ago, there was a fire and more injuries at that same Santa Fe manufacturing site. To be clear, as we’re recording this, the second instance is still under investigation.
(repetitive drumming noise)
Megan Kamerick: Why is it so loud?
Eric Merryman: That’s an industrial grade solvent recovery pump. So, it’s just got a big motor, big diaphragm pistons in it, and…
Megan Kamerick: That’s why he has earplugs…
Eric Merryman: Yes. (laughs)
Megan Kamerick: Eric says he worked closely with state officials to come up with a safe way to do those extractions.
Eric Merryman: Mountain Top Extracts was the first class one, division one, approved in the state for indoor light hydrocarbon extraction. And what that means was, prior to us, everyone was required to do light hydrocarbon extraction outdoors. My argument to that, to the DOH was, how can you hold me to a food grade standard, but yet make me do this outside? Like, where else in the food industry does this exist? What happened was, I actually had to get involved with construction industries division, which is now primarily the LP gas division of the state, is the one that inspects light hydrocarbon extraction facilities. I don't know if they do ethanol or CO2, but I do know for certain that they do the light hydrocarbon inspections. And, what happened was the department of health had actually contacted the state and said, “Hey, we need some help here. We don't know what we're looking at. You know, you guys have a gas division. We would really like your help.” And so, it was perfect timing, because the first explosion in Santa Fe had just happened, like within six or nine months of us getting our license. And so, I was able to sit down with the state and actually help create the rules and regs for light hydrocarbon extraction in the state. And, the way that we worked together on that was, I had contacted the fire marshal out of Denver, which at that point in time, Denver had the highest standards in the industry for light hydrocarbon extraction. And so, the fire marshal sent me over those standards. And, we sat down with the state. And we went through them and we said, “You know, these are good.” And so, between us, we came up with a really high standards for light hydrocarbon extraction, because there's no reason that an explosion of that nature should occur in this industry.
Andy Lyman: To put it plainly, this extraction process involves a solvent, usually butane. That strips the plant material of all of that stuff that cannabis patients want in their concentrated medicine. But here’s eric again explaining it in much greater detail.
Eric Merryman: Light hydrocarbon extractions occur by keeping your light hydrocarbons in a liquid state, which requires subzero temperatures. Once it's in a liquid state, now it can act as a stripping solvent for the cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids, as well as waxes, lipids, things of that nature. Not so much chlorophylls, because light hydrocarbons are very non-polar solvent. Basically, what's done is, in that liquid state, you're saturating the cannabis material in a pressure-rated column, if you will, that has been packed full of cannabis. Once the desirables are removed from the plant matter, which the light hydrocarbons are still in liquid form, it gets transferred over into what's called a distillation chamber. And, what that distillation chamber does, is now you're going to convert that liquid back into a gas. And so, that you can incorporate what's called a recovery pump that will then move that vapor back into the original solvent tank, under subzero temperatures that it came from. It's called a closed-loop system. And so, it turns it back into liquid for storage into the solvent vessel. So then, once the solvent is distilled out of the oil, up to probably 90, 95, 98-percent of that solvent is distilled off in that distillation chamber. Then you have your oil, with a little bit of residual solvent in there, that you then pour out into pyrex dishes. The oil then goes into it into a heated vacuum chamber, and it remains in that heated vacuum chamber for anywhere from three to... Three days to five weeks, depending on the finished product that the client has requested. And what that does is, it does two things. It removes any and all residual solvent, if that's what your desired product is. And, I say that because the state allows 800 parts per million of residual solvent to remain in the medicine. Colorado allows 5000 parts per million. Mountain top extracts allows zero parts per million. If your desired effect is zero parts per million residual solvent, then you'll leave that in that vacuum chamber until that's achieved.
Andy Lyman: But, extraction is not the only thing they do at mountain top extracts. Operation Manager Aaron Cochola walks us through a packaging room and shows us the variety of different types of derivatives they use.
Aaron Cochola: Yeah, and then one last thing, you can kind of see the differences between, this would be, kind of, considered a cooking oil. So, this is an edible oil. As you can see, it’s a lot darker. Has a lot more of the fats and the lipids that eric was talking about earlier. This stuff is a lot more beneficial to ingest, you know, versus inhaling.
Megan Kamerick: What would you put that in?
Aaron Cochola: Into a gummy. So, this would be used to create the gummy, the hard candies and the lollies, or a topical. Something that would be either ingested or applied topically.
Megan Kamerick: Aaron also showed us the results of that extraction method eric told us about.
Aaron Cochola: It’s crystals. It’s THC-a crystals, essentially, being formed in a pool of terpenes. So, it’s a good mix of cannabinoids, for sure. But, it’s all about colorance, color gradients, as far as terpenes have different colors to them as well. So, the different grade of, or the different amount of terpenes, and the ratios of them also affect the colors. It’s all connected, really.
Megan Kamerick: So, you’re putting that in and it forms into crystals eventually?
Aaron Cochola: We do, under pressure. So, like Eric had mentioned, using that heated vaccum. So, pressure forms diamonds.
Megan Kamerick: So, what do you with the crystals?
Aaron Cochola: Smoke them, inhale them.
Megan Kamerick: Oh, ok.
Aaron Cochola: So, this is, everything would literally go into a small little glass container. And then, using a very small amounts, you would vaporize it, essentially.
Megan Kamerick: Oh, ok. What flavor are those?
Employee: These are green apple.
(candies dropped onto a tray)
Andy Lyman: And then there’s the kitchen, where Aaron says they can produce about 4-thousand edibles a day.
Aaron Cochola: As you can see here, that we use candy machines for filling the hard candies, the lollies and the gummies. We have just tons and tons of molds that we fill, so pretty much just jamming two of these machines all day long.
Andy Lyman: Can you tell us, because we haven’t done this yet, all the types of products that you guys manufacture here, from just extracted material to edibles, all that other stuff? What do you guys make here?
Aaron Cochola: Yeah, so we actually, coming out of the kitchen, we do gummies, hard candies, lollipops. We also make salves, tinctures too as well, like topicals. We are also creating a lot of concentrates. So, boy, we could go down the list of that, but all the different consistencies that you would do, like dabs, the sugar wax, the diamond sauce, the diamonds, vape cartridges too, as well.
Andy Lyman: I want to touch on one thing a lot of people probably don’t realize and likely never considered... Mountain top extracts only has a license to manufacture, whereas some other companies are more vertically integrated.
Megan Kamerick: What that means is that companies like mountain top, stand alone manufacturers, rely on supply from producers who are licensed by the state to grow cannabis. Then, Mountain Top sends the finished product back to the producer and onto a dispensary shelf.
Andy Lyman: Eric says he’d like to see a change in licensing that would allow manufacturers to grow their own cannabis.
Eric Merryman: So, having control from seed to finished product is extremely critical. I don't know what percentage, but I suspect that most people have gotten into this industry for the fast money. There are some that haven't made the decision based on that, and I really respect those companies and those individuals, because it takes a lot more to do it right. If I'm relying upon a cultivator to supply me with material, I don't know what their objectives are, meaning that, I don't know why they got into the business. I don't know why they're doing what they're doing to wind up with this finished product, to supply me with to make oil, to feed into the dispensaries. If it's about how many crops can I get in a year, how many pounds per plant in that crop can I get in a year, and that's all their focus, then it's highly likely that there's going to be contaminants in that plant material.
Megan Kamerick: Eric says Mountain Top takes an extra step to examine plant material before the extraction process even starts.
Eric Merryman: We do quality control in a couple of different ways. The first thing that we do is, when we receive product, we put it under a microscope and we do a grading system and that will immediately tell us, how this product's been treated, at least from the cultivation and harvest standpoint. It will tell us if there's molds or mildews in there. It will not tell us if there's pesticides or heavy metals. The way we do quality control on water-based pesticides and heavy metals is in a proprietary filtering system that we've developed here. Some of the oil-based treatments are hard to identify. Actually, almost impossible to identify just by looking at the plant material under the microscope. There's some things that may hint towards something was done to this that doesn't seem right. And, that will typically have to do with the coloring of the trichomes, maybe some slight surface-coating, just some things that typically don't relate to a healthy plant or harvest. What we've had happen a couple of times was, after the initial extraction, you can see, basically a rainbow sheen on top of the oil, which typically relates to a petroleum-based product. If and when that happens, we will immediately contact the cultivator. We won't release that medicine.
Megan Kamerick: It seems really problematic. Like, how do you... Do you contract with very specific cultivators? Like, your supply chain seems to be key to your profit?
Eric Merryman: Absolutely. That's one of the things about not allowing manufacturers to cultivate for their own extraction, which we are one of the very few. There may be one other state in the union that doesn't allow the manufacturers to cultivate. So, yes, we're completely subjective to the cultivators of the state. We've been in the business long enough to know the top tier cultivators, if you will, or at least those not adding the petroleum treatments, the soil treatments that can become systemic to the plant. So, it's not just your topical or foliar applications. There's stuff uptaking, systemically, by this plant, that wind up in the finished product. So, those things are really critical to us. Unfortunately, we have zero control over what they're using on their plants or what they're communicating with us in regards to the cultivation and or treatment in those plants.
Megan Kamerick: That’s crazy.
Andy Lyman: Marketing is also a challenge for companies like mountain top. They can’t sell their products directly to patients, so Aaron says they have to market to the producers instead.
Aaron Cochola: We have to convince them to purchase, to turn their valuable material into this product and then put it into their store to try and sell to those patients. So, it requires us creating promo material, product cards and informing their tenders, bud tenders of what the product is. So, then they can actually translate that, then, to the patient. So, when the patient says, “I saw something on Instagram or I heard my friend has this,” they can come in and ask about it and, kind of, try and get that relay of information. Empowering tenders and bud tenders has been probably one of our main focuses, as well with the education material, you know, kind of giving them a little more power to communicate with patients.
Andy Lyman: Growing Forward is a collaboration between New Mexico PBS and New Mexico Political Report, thanks to a grant from the New Mexico Local News Fund.
Megan Kamerick: Our producers are Kevin McDonald and Bryce Dix. Bryce also does the editing and Kevin is Executive Producer at NMPBS. Matthew Reichbach is the Editor at New Mexico Political Report.
Andy Lyman: Join us next time as we wrap things up and discuss some of the issues we didn’t get to so far in season 1. We’ll also lay the groundwork for the upcoming debate over legalizing recreational-use cannabis in New Mexico during next year’s legislative session.
Megan Kamerick: Be sure to subscribe to “Growing Forward” wherever you get your podcasts. And, while you’re there, be sure to leave us a review. It really helps.
Cannabis and Indigenous Communities
A missing piece of most cannabis conversations in New Mexico, whether it has to do with medical or the potential for legalization of recreational- use, is how Indigenous Communities are impacted. It's a complicated scenario, especially when you consider the 23 Tribes in our state are all sovereign nations. This week on "Growing Forward" we dive into those sovereignty issues, and how Indigenous communities perceive the future of cannabis in their communities.
Additional Reading - We talk a lot in this episode about a hemp-growing operation in Northwest New Mexico. As the episode points our, there are a lot of concerns about how that operation is being handled and operated. A lot has happened in this story since we taped out interview with Navajo Times Reporter Arlyssa Becenti, but here are some of her most recent updates and related reporting from other news outlets:
Coalition of Officers Raids Benally's Hemp Farms - Navajo Times
Redfeather-Benally Replaces Dineh Benally on Farm Board - Navajo Times
Police Agencies Still Investigating Hemp Farms on Navajo Nation - Farmington Daily Times
Uprooted: A Police Raid Near Shiprock Has All But Ended an Illicit Cannabis-Growing Operation - Searchlight New Mexico
Christian Bjoerklund - " Hallon"
Poddington Bear - "Good Times"
Andy Lyman: I'm Andy Lyman with New Mexico Political Report.
Megan Kamerick: And I'm Megan Kamerick with New Mexico PBS and this is Growing Forward a podcast about cannabis in New Mexico.
Andy Lyman: When lawmakers debate cannabis legalization, they often focus on public safety and potential tax revenue for the state.
Megan Kamerick: But one issue that's often overlooked in this discussion is how tribal communities will be impacted.
Andy Lyman: It's a complicated issue with probably more questions than answers.
Megan Kamerick: And we could probably spend a lot longer than 30 minutes talking about it.
Andy Lyman: One contributing factor is that the 23 tribes, pueblos and reservations in New Mexico are all sovereign nations, which raises a lot of questions about what role they should have when lawmakers draft legalization proposals.
Megan Kamerick: Another important thing to remember is that Native Americans are far from monolithic.
Monica Braine: Like, you know, not all towns and cities and states and counties are on the same page across the country when it comes to medical cannabis, or any kind of cannabis, really.
Megan Kamerick: Monica Braine is a producer with a nationwide call-in show Native America calling. After years of reporting on the issue, she says there are no universal truths when it comes to cannabis in Indian country.
Monica Braine: There are tribes that got in on the game early and whether it was on the medical side or in states that have legalized and they run their own dispensaries or they are growing or distributing things like that. And other tribes are taking their time to decide whether or not this is something that's right for them. The experts that we've had on our show who focus on this issue in Indian country, particularly like native lawyers, have come on and said things about how it's jurisdictionally such a complicated situation for Native America, right? That “go slow on something like this, or you're going to be sorry.” And we've seen that the Flandreau Santee Tribe, I think they started something and ended up having to have their hemp crops burned, because they -- it was a complicated situation, the officials were just not having it, basically. And so, yeah, it's it. I can't say it enough that it's complicated. And that some tribes just don't want to mess with that the complications of having jurisdictional. So, for when we talk about Indian Country, that's like the legal designation, and it really means land on federally recognized reservations. So, there's federally recognized tribes, and those tribes are sovereign entities that have a government-to-government relationship, whether it's a government to federal government relationship or government to state government relationship. And so, it doesn't mean that there's a free for all, and that you get to do whatever you want, you still have to follow federal laws. And when it comes to criminal jurisdiction, things are covered under the major crimes act.
Megan Kamerick: As we've mentioned before, and it's worth repeating now, regardless of state laws, cannabis is still illegal on the federal level. So, over the years, as various states have moved to legalize recreational use cannabis, there's always this lingering concern that the federal government will come in and raid dispensaries.
Andy Lyman: Which isn't necessarily an unfounded concern. The Obama administration did crack down on some states that had a recreational use program. But in 2013, U.S. Deputy Attorney General James Cole issued a memo. It essentially said the federal government would take a hands-off approach, letting states chart their own course with cannabis. Monica says that guidance commonly referred to as the Cole memo, applied to tribes as well.
Monica Braine: so initially, it really looked like tribes were not going to be able to get in the game. [laughs] you know, whether it was medical marijuana or in states that legalized entirely. The Cole memo came out, and it sort of indicated that tribes would have the possibility of being able to produce or sell or things like that. Of course, the Cole memo came out during the Obama administration. The trump administration rescinded it. And so tribes found themselves back in a confusing territory again, which you know, we had individuals on our show who are saying, “We're pretty used to this being told one thing, and then another, and things like that,” but it makes it tricky for tribes that are trying to build economies for themselves, that maybe are trying to pivot from gaming, or gaming is not lucrative in their area. But this provides an economic opportunity for the tribe for the community to thrive and grow. And to have it be so confusing and getting mixed messages and then having even local sheriffs showing up and saying things, it's a really tricky situation.
Arlyssa Becenti: [speaking Navajo]
Andy Lyman: That's Arlyssa Becenti, a reporter with Navajo Times. Among a long list of other things, Arlyssa has been covering industrial hemp farming on the Navajo Nation.
Arlyssa Becenti: So, it’s a long story. [laughs] So, in 2017, this is 2017, Dineh Benally. He is, he's a lot of different things. He ran for president. He ran for Navajo Vice President, President and Senator for New Mexico, I don't really remember what district. And now he is the San Juan River Farm Board President. But in 2017, he came to Navajo Nation Council with a legislation wanting to, you know, get into the medicinal marijuana business. But that legislation was withdrawn. It just it didn't go through. So that's when he did it the right way. When he went to the leaders. Last year in 2019, I got a tip that he was pursuing hemp. And in my mind, I'm thinking “Okay, well, they'll shut this down.” And I didn't really have much to go on at the time. And so I left it. But then in June of this year in 2020, because Navajo Nation police sent out a press release, saying, “Okay, we hear your concerns” to the Shiprock community, “we hear your concerns, you know, we are trying to take care of it as best as we can. We're doing what we can. We're keeping vigilant of this hemp that we are hearing about these greenhouses, these farms are being placed out of nowhere.” And after that, a few days later, the Navajo Department of Justice sent out their own press release and saying, “okay, we're going to we're going to sue Dineh Benally and his two companies.” And from then, since those press releases on to now, is when I've been covering it, and I've been covering in form of, of how it's being unfolded, how the issues are being unfolded, what the community is doing and how their leadership in that community what they're doing, as well as what our Navajo Nation leadership is doing.
Andy Lyman: Arlyssa has been covering this issue from the start. But another news outlet Searchlight New Mexico recently picked up the story and was able to get some information that Arlyssa says many officials were not willing to give her. Part of what Searchlight reported was that Dineh Benally was likely growing cannabis with the psychoactive substance THC, which is illegal on Navajo Nation. Benally was also featured in a story earlier this year on the PBS Newshour.
PBS Newshour reporter: On his 300 acres, Benally and his farmers can grow up to two and a half million hemp plants. But this crop comes with some caveats. The U.S. Agriculture Department and tribal lands have new regulations around the farming of hemp. These include sample testing of the plants to ensure their THC levels are low enough to be considered hemp, and to plan to dispose of any plants that test too high. And Navajo leaders like President Jonathan Nez, say Benally must follow the new federal rules and get permission from the nation to raise a hemp crop.
Dineh Benally: And we just want to be able to do it correctly and protect our Navajo people that want to utilize that product on our nation.
PBS Newshour Reporter: Benally says he will work to ensure he is meeting the new federal and tribal guidelines. And he understands cooperation ensures success.
Dineh Benally: We have to work together. That's all I realized, like to get this going and take it to the next level.
Arlyssa Becenti: Speaking with the Navajo Nation Police, they have been really great sources especially as the Navajo EPA. There's a good amount of hemp, of course, but they also could be having growing marijuana in there. There's a lot of intelligence going on right now between the feds and Navajo Nation, but you know, they believe that there is marijuana, and there's a lot of shady deals going on. And that's what I'm hearing from these police sources. And when I speak to people outside who actually work there, they don't want to talk to me. Nobody wants to talk to me, everyone is very antagonistic towards me when I speak with them.
Andy Lyman: Let's pause for a quick trip down memory lane just to catch everyone up. Hemp was actually made legal in New Mexico under former Governor Susana Martinez, albeit probably by accident. Martinez actually planned to veto the hemp legalization bill, but the state supreme court ruled that she failed to go through the correct veto process. Without the proper veto, that means hemp was now a de facto legal crop.
Megan Kamerick: And much of Arlyssa’s reporting is on this hemp farming operation not specifically cannabis with higher levels of THC.
Andy Lyman: Remember, by law hemp has to have no more than .03% THC to be legal. So that means if Benally really was growing plants with a high percentage of THC, he was breaking Navajo Nation law. Here's Arlyssa again but keep in mind she's talking about hemp, not cannabis. With that significant amount of THC.
Arlyssa Becenti: They need a business plan of how of what they're going to use, how they're going to use this, what they're going to do. There's gonna have to be -- you have to adjust taxes, how are we going to be able to get the income from all of this hemp and then tax it as well. And then we're going to have to talk about how it's going to fit into the general budget. That's just the political way. And we just politically. I don't know really much about the community because we have 110 different chapters, and they all have their own opinions on that. Just from the discussions and the NMSU pilot project, when I was listening to it over a year ago, this Shiprock chapter was just really afraid that well, the elders there, were really afraid of what bad it could bring to the community. And so just also education, education is needed from people who are wanting to go forward with hemp, industrial hemp. And they're going to have to be really good at educating because Navajo Nation elders who are basically the voters, the majority voters, they're very wary of anything new coming in. And because we've been burned before, I mean, our coal mining, our uranium mines, these are all foreign entities that came on promising all this wonderful stuff, and instead, they extracted from our land, and they left. And they left a big destruction. The largest uranium mine spill, radioactive mine spill, happened here in church rock, and it just completely ruined the water system in the Rio Puerco. And that that kind of stuff that has happened in the past, they're concerned of happening again, and this hemp is probably something I believe, guys are gonna be thinking, “alright, we need to be very cautious of this. This is something new, and we don't want it to bring harm to us.”
Andy Lyman: So, I think it's fair to say that there might be some trepidation about either cannabis or hemp as a cash crop, at least on the Navajo Nation. In September, Arlyssa reported that one of the growing houses on Benally's operation was torched.
Megan Kamerick: Beyond just the legal questions, Arlyssa says views within the Navajo Nation vary so much it's impossible to assign a Navajo view to recreational cannabis legalization.
Arlyssa Becenti: It's just such a huge, huge nation with a lot of people with a lot of different views. And when it comes to judiciously -- like we have so many different kinds of conservative Navajos, but we also have different traditional Navajos who say, who write “okay, cannabis, it comes from the ground, hemp it comes from the ground. It's medicine, it will help us it can do this for us. It's traditional, we can do it, it comes from the earth.” And you have the other ones who are saying, “there's no room in our traditions that says our beliefs that has hemp or anything like this. And this is basically new. And I don't buy the fact that this is traditional, just because it comes from the from the earth.” There's just no one underlying traditional belief. We all have our different beliefs and how we interpret Navajo beliefs and Navajo traditions, even Navajo language. It's different from one side of the reservation to the next side of the reservation. Shiprock is a really farm-exclusive territory where they grow melons and corn and you know, squash and everything like that. And they're just afraid that if this hemp comes in, it's just going to ruin the land, it's going to ruin, it's going to take away from the water resources. And there's over 400 acres, 36 farms identified all over. And there's also talks that it's not just in the northern Navajo agency, it's branched out into Arizona, and other parts of New Mexico, on the Navajo Nation. So, they're just worried more so about that. [music] just by the lack of water already, obviously, since we're in COVID. That's one of the major reasons why COVID spreads so rapidly is because people don't have water. That's why there's so many, every year we find feral horses who have died because they don't have water to drink. And so those are our problems that we see now. This hemp, needing all the water that it does, and the way Dineh Benally is taking the water, that's one major concern for the farmers, I believe.
Megan Kamerick: Clearly there are some diverse views on the Navajo Nation, and even if the tribal government comes to a consensus on recreational use cannabis, it will likely be a different view from other tribal communities in the state.
Andy Lyman: There are examples of other tribal governments around the us that have figured out how to get into the legal cannabis industry. In Nevada, for example, the state passed a law that allows tribes to negotiate directly with the governor, instead of getting the feds involved. Monica Braine points to one tribe in California that challenged a state mandate that would have significantly impacted a core principle of all tribes... Sovereignty.
Monica Braine: It's a really tricky situation, I really admire the tribes that have tried to venture into it. There's a tribe in California called the Benton Paiute and we had the tribal chairwoman on a few years back in 2018. And one of the things that was really interesting about California was that if tribes wanted to sell cannabis, they needed to get certified through the state to be allowed to sell according to the state. And there were in the papers that they made the tribes fill out, there were things that said, I waive all my sovereign immunity in order to sell cannabis, you know, and the chairwoman of this tribe in California, was like, “we're not doing that.” So, they set up their own system, they certified themselves to sell cannabis. Because that's just like a line in the sand, you're not going to waive your sovereign immunity. That's why tribes exist.
Megan Kamerick: That sounds like trying to do something like that, you'd have to have a fairly sizable tribe that has a government with the capacity to do something like that.
Monica Braine: It's true. But this particular tribe, the Benton Paiute is actually not that big, but they work well together as a cohesive government and have been governing themselves for a very long time. And so, they put the systems in place to be able to do that, which I found really fascinating.
Megan Kamerick: Which gets us back to Andy's earlier point about tribes’ seat at that proverbial table. I asked monica what she thinks about how involved officials in Indian Country are in the important conversations about medical cannabis and the legalization of recreational cannabis.
Monica Braine: Honestly, Megan, I really don't know if they're being included or not. I've been asking that question. And particularly, when it comes to this question of whether or not they will have to certify themselves through the state to be able to sell, to be able to manufacture, to be able to grow. And I can't get a clear picture of that. And I'm not sure that Pueblos and Tribes in New Mexico have the time and energy to make sure that they have a place at the table and they shouldn't have to. In the past, it kind of seems like natives of tribes have been sort of an afterthought unless they demand or it's required by law that consultation happens. This current administration that we have, I think, is focused on making sure that they consult with tribes and things like that. But is the legislation making sure that as they're writing legislation, they're talking with Pueblos about it, they're talking with the Navajo Nation about it? And like I said, I really don't know the answer to that.
Megan Kamerick: So, this whole issue of representation and whether tribal communities are being included, as we're all figuring out what this is going to look like is still up in the air, as monica says, but also up in the air is this, this, disconnect or this confusion between hemp versus cannabis? We've heard this before, Andy, there's a lot of confusion. [laughs]
Andy Lyman: Yes. And again, just as a reminder that and I said earlier, hemp by law has to have a very low percentage of THC. I think a lot of people probably are listening to this saying, “well, wait a minute, they're growing hemp and not cannabis.” But I think this might be indicative of what is yet to come. If New Mexico were to legalize cannabis next year, this is something that tribal groups are going to have to, you know, really get their voice heard on this issue. And I think they probably do need some more representation when they're drafting this legislation. Because there is that disconnect between state, federal and tribal governments.
Megan Kamerick: And so that disconnect between states and the federal government is basically compounded for Native American tribes. They have to navigate relationships at the federal level, the state level, even the local level.
Monica Braine: Whether or not tribes have a good relationship with their state is always sort of a tricky situation. And it can vary from administration to administration. And then on top of that, you have the relationship with the federal government. I think, going back to like that Cole memo, it made things confusing as to whether or not the federal government was on board with tribes being able to pursue this as a economic development. And whereas, for example, gaming, it's pretty crystal clear. We have major federal legislation that paved the way for tribes to do gaming, they do have to negotiate compacts with states. This is where we're headed with marijuana [music] with the cannabis legalization is that: will tribes be negotiating compacts with states? Will they be doing what's called a revenue sharing? So, it's not taxes with gaming, its revenue sharing, and it's anywhere from like 1% to 30%, that tribes will share their gaming profits with the state. And that's all as a result of federal legislation. So, do we need federal legislation? And is that even a possibility? You know, that's why we have so many, a patchwork of so many different situations going on. So, when you try to sit down and push some legislation through, you're going to have tribes that are going to say, don't bother pushing this deal. I'm not negotiating anything with you. I only do my relationship with the federal government.
Megan Kamerick: We should probably point out that we recorded this episode prior to the presidential election. But regardless of the outcome, it really seems like there's still a lot of unknowns.
Andy Lyman: There's a lot of guesswork involved. For instance, it seems to me that the trump administration would rather leave the issue up to individual states. Whether that would give autonomy to tribes is a good question. I think that Joe Biden had offered even less clarity on the issue. During his campaign, he spoke about things like expungements and eliminating penalties for drugs, but I'm not really sure he ever spoke at length about legalization on a federal level.
Megan Kamerick: That makes me even more curious about what New Mexico lawmakers will, or even can, do to include tribes and legalization efforts. I mean, I guess New Mexico could enter into some sort of compact, like in Nevada?
Andy Lyman: Yeah, seems like that should be a possibility. Let's clarify though how cannabis is classified by the federal government. The plant is still listed as a schedule one drug.
Emily Kaltenbach: Schedule one basically means that there's no medicinal or therapeutic value for substance and we know that that's not the case for cannabis.
Andy Lyman: Emily Kaltenbach is with the New Mexico Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates for things like criminal justice reform and revamping drug laws. They were at the forefront of the efforts to legalize medical cannabis more than a decade ago. Now the group is focusing on legalizing recreational use cannabis.
Emily Kaltenbach: If you look at how many U.S. States now have some sort of legal cannabis option, whether that's medical or full legalization, the research and the anecdotal evidence shows [laughs] people-- it does have something so bad about you. So, there's been a long battle to take cannabis off of schedule one. There are different proposals out there. One is just to reduce it to a lower schedule, right, that shows that it does have some medicinal value, but still is controlled in a medical setting. We really advocate for the descheduling because if you just reschedule and lower it on that controlled substance, then it still has to be very tightly regulated in a way that would really limit individuals access, especially patients, medical patients’ access.
Andy Lyman: We still don't know exactly what any legislation will look like yet. But, Emily says previous proposals did at least address autonomy of sovereign nations.
Emily Kaltenbach: Last year's bill actually required that there would be some tribal agreements with the state because for many reasons, I mean, one we want to see sovereign nations be able to stand up their own legalization systems, and both on the medical and the adult use side. And so it's important that those agreements come into place. There's also as a standalone bill that Shendo carried last year. So yes, I think that, you know, that's something that we're advocating for that there's appropriate agreements between tribes and nations and pueblos in the state. And also that, you know, we don't want to see tribal communities lose out on some of the benefits of a new system.
Megan Kamerick: Monica says an ideal situation for tribes would be if they could navigate legalizing cannabis independently from surrounding states. But with these added layers of bureaucracy and questions about state versus federal jurisdictions, that seems kind of overwhelming for tribal governments that are also grappling with huge issues like the COVID pandemic. I can see why lawyers advise and why some tribes have a lot of trepidation about getting into lists just from your description, like, ah! What a headache...i mean, with maybe a potentially good revenue stream, but who knows...
Monica Braine: It's like, it's already a headache just to be native, right? To be a tribe and sovereign entity, and then you're going to add like another headache on top of that, like no amount of medical cannabis is going to make that headache go away. [laughs]
Megan Kamerick: Growing Forward is a collaboration between New Mexico PBS and New Mexico Political Report, thanks to a grant from the New Mexico Local News Fund.
Andy Lyman: Our producers are Kevin McDonald and Bryce Dix. Bryce also does the editing. Matthew Reichbach is the editor at New Mexico Political Report. Join us next time when Megan and I take a couple of field trips.
Megan Kamerick: Be sure to subscribe to growing forward wherever you get your podcast and while you're there, please leave us a review. It really helps. You can also get caught up on all of our episodes so far by heading to nmpbs.org and searching for "Growing Forward."
Testing and Regulations
The clock is officially ticking, if New Mexico wants to legalize recreational-use cannabis. That's because voters in Arizona approved a measure last week, legalizing the drug in another neighboring state. Lawmakers and Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham will no doubt make it a top priority for the 2021 session, but there are many questions still to be answered as the legislation is drafted. One of those questions as to do with testing and regulations. This week on Growing Forward, hosts Megan Kamerick and Andy Lyman dive into this issue as it relates to the state's medical program. As with most things, it turns out New Mexico is different than other states in how they handle testing and regulation, in a lot of different ways.
Andy Lyman: I’m Andy Lyman, with New Mexico Political Report.
Megan Kamerick: And I’m Megan Kamerick with New Mexico PBS, and this is Growing Forward, a podcast about cannabis in New Mexico.
Andy Lyman: So far, we’ve looked at the history of the medical cannabis program and previous attempts at legalization in the state legislature.
Megan Kamerick: Today, we’re going back to the medical program and talking about testing standards and regulations that are already in place.
Dominick Zurlo: And, one of the things that we heard very clearly from many of the patients who are involved in the program is they want to ensure that their cannabis is as safe as possible.
Megan Kamerick: That’s Dr. Dominick Zurlo, the Director of the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, which is overseen by the state’s Department of Health.
Andy Lyman: Zurlo was actually involved with the program more than 10 years ago just after the medical program started.
Megan Kamerick: One thing that struck me as we talked to Zurlo and others about regulations is that there is just one department that oversees the entire program. I asked him if that’s how other medical cannabis programs across the country work.
Dominick Zurlo: It's not necessarily the state health agency and sometimes it can be split up into different areas. So, for example, here in New Mexico, while we actually have that regulatory authority over medical cannabis, department of agriculture has the authority over hemp, along with environment. And so, things can get split up and it really depends on how the state government is organized and every state is very different. So, for example, most states don't have a centralized, regulatory body for their departments of health. Oftentimes, while they may have some policies and overarching authority, many times those are actually done on a county by county basis. So, New Mexico is fairly unique in this way, that we have an overarching department of health that covers the entire state. In other states, they may have a setup where their Department of Health may be part of Health and Human Services. So, they may be combined. In other states, they're separated. So, different states do this in different ways and oftentimes it just simply depends on what their overarching structure is for their own state government.
Andy Lyman: Last year I wrote about a dispensary in Albuquerque that was robbed at gunpoint. It wasn’t, by far, the first one to be robbed, but what I found was that the state doesn’t really mandate specific security measures.
Megan Kamerick: So, what is the state’s requirement for security plans in dispensaries?
Andy Lyman: That they have one.
Dominick Zurlo: They do have to have minimum security qualifications. They have to have a system. They do have to be able to test it. And so, you want to make sure that there's alarms. All of those sorts of things. But, we really do leave it up to each individual location, because you can have different security needs, depending upon the location you're in. And, we don't want to turn around and try to restrict it too much, where someone can't open a dispensary, for example, because they can't meet too-specific regulations that they can still do things very securely, just not necessarily the way we might outline them in some of the regulations. And so, we don't want to get too specific, otherwise, we have the potential to actually exclude locations and areas, and especially in rural areas, that otherwise might be able to have still-secure and safe locations if we got too specific. So, we did leave that open. Now, one of the things that we do is, when we do go out and do inspections, we do talk with them about security issues and make recommendations to them. And if something, for example, doesn't look like it would be very secure, we do talk with them about “how could you make this a little more secure?” And have those conversations. And I'll tell you, most of the time, those security suggestions, and or other solutions that have come up from them, often get implemented.
Megan Kamerick: The Department of Health and the Medical Cannabis Program do in fact regulate things like how many plants producers can grow and what sort of pesticides and herbicides they should be testing for. Zurlo explains those regulations have ramped up during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dominick Zurlo: The role for the program, with regard to their daily practice, is really about, we really have that license and regulation role. And so, each of those individual producers, dispensaries, and other organizations, they have to come up with their own internal policies and procedures. They do have to meet the standards of the regulation. And so, what we really do is, we do inspections. We go out and we look at the physical locations to be able to see what's happening. We have conversations with the staff that are at all of the different locations to ensure that they're really following, not only our regulations, but are they following their own internal policies and procedures? Now with, for example, with COVID-19, some of the things that have come up is, medical cannabis did get classified as an essential business, because we see it as a medication for patients. And so, patients, we wanted to ensure they had access. But, in order for the dispensaries to be able to continue doing that, they did have to follow the guidelines that have been issued by the CDC and the department of health, with regard to safety practices. So, wearing facemasks, keeping six-foot distances, disinfecting commonly-touched surfaces on a regular basis, and really having to follow through with that. And so, the program has really been ensuring and working with all of those different producers to help be able to provide those guidelines, ensure that they're able to follow them, answer questions that they have with regard to it. But, when it comes down to the day-to-day operations, we also need the help from patients, to be able to let us know if somebody is not doing something that is correct, or is right or that they perceive, to let us know and say, “you know, I went into this location and this is what happened.” We do pass that information on, in an anonymous fashion, back to those locations. And just like in any other business, it could be as something as simple as there's a new staff member or a new employee, something happened, just on one particular occasion, but we do look into it. And every complaint, we look into it, in order to try to see are things being done, right? Are there concerns and problems with the different locations? And if it comes to a situation where it's a regulatory manner – which really means that, are they violating one of the regulations? Then, we will continue to proceed with talking with those producers and making sure that they're correcting those issues. Most of the time, however, it ends up being something that's a simple solution and that a simple conversation helps take care of it.
Andy Lyman: Megan, you’ve used the term wild west a few times as we’ve looked into the specifics of regulation and testing. But, there are a number of patients and producers who don’t necessarily think more regulation is good.
Megan Kamerick: Remember Duke Rodriguez? He’s the President and CEO of Ultra Health, a medical cannabis producer in New Mexico.
Duke Rodriguez: Let's back up on the history of testing. There are still surrounding states that don't have mandatory testing requirements. I'm most familiar, for example, with Arizona. It might shock your listeners to understand, product is put on the shelf, much larger volume than New Mexico, with no testing at all. And keep in mind, before we talk about legal cannabis, imagine the amount of products that is sold every day, in the gray and black market, that is untested. Think about the products that are being grown by, what we call PPLs, personal production license. Folks who have a cannabis card, who are allowed to grow their own product that is created, grown, consumed, untested. So, I'm not saying testing is not necessary, but there is a history that testing never existed in the past. Now, should we test going forward? The answer is absolutely yes. The debate becomes what level of testing and what are the parameters for a pass and fail? I think, thankfully, we have some of the most restrictive testing guidelines anywhere in the country. Ours are more restrictive than Oregon's. Ours are more restrictive than Colorado's today.
Megan Kamerick: Rodriguez believes the current testing standards are not based on science, but on feelings.
Duke Rodriguez: Here's a situation where you can overreact and have such high testing standards, you get a lot of product fails, that never gets in patients’ hands. But, we're willing to deal with that. All we’ve said is whatever testing requirements you have, and we believe you should have them, they need to be based on science. Not a regulator saying, “I think. I feel. I want.” Actual science numbers. It's great intention, but it also has to be done in a stepwise fashion and it doesn't put a high cost onto the operators of labs themselves, to growers themselves and then they pass all that cost on the patient. We want safe, reliable medicine. We want it to be protected. We want it to be clean, but we also have to do it in a responsible way. That's the only thing we say. Yes, we support testing. Yes, we love testing. Yes, it should be done on both the medical and the adult side.
Andy Lyman: Just a little aside about testing… earlier this year, the medical cannabis program and the department of health implemented new testing standards... Which didn’t make everyone happy. Rodriguez and several other producers took the state to court, arguing those new rules on testing standards are “arbitrary and capricious.”
Megan Kamerick: We just heard Rodriguez reference personal production licenses, or PPLs. That’s the license that patients can get in order to grow their own cannabis. While PPL holders are limited in how much they can grow or possess at a given time, they are not required to submit their cannabis for testing.
Andy Lyman: Through conversations with patients, I’ve discovered that there are a variety of reasons people might want to grow their own cannabis. Some say it’s because they like to know what was used to grow the plant, but sometimes it’s simply because access is sparse.
Chad Lozano: No dispensaries want to come down here, because there's not enough money. But there's tons of money down here, it’s just, they don't know anything about southern New Mexico. So, that's where they get it wrong. They just don't understand how it is to be a patient, they only understand how it is to be a money-mongering producer and that's all it is.
Megan Kamerick: That’s Chad Lozano, a medical cannabis patient in Las Cruces. He tells us he primarily uses cannabis he has grown himself.
Chad Lozano: And also, we're one of the most rural states in the nation. Our population density in the whole state is 17. So, when you look at it in that aspect, you need to grow, because you're not going to have enough dispensaries to provide for everybody in the state. And that's a problem that we have right now.
Andy Lyman: In a previous episode we touched on the issue of how many plants cannabis producers are allowed to grow. It’s become sort of a back and forth between some producers and the state. That is... Does New Mexico have enough cannabis to serve patients under the current program? And, arguably more importantly, will we have enough to support the medical program if the state legalizes recreational use?
Ginger Grider: We would never encourage anyone for breaking the law. And the DOH, in essence, because of their refusal to address the access problem, which they say there isn't one, but there absolutely is. Then, they are encouraging people basically through their inaction to commit federal offenses because they refuse to address the access problem.
Megan Kamerick: That’s Ginger Grider, with the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients’ Advocate Alliance.
Ginger Grider: We have a very, very long name, to try to make sure that everyone is included in it. And, it is the only state certified patient advocates association in New Mexico, at all, for medical cannabis patients. And, our goal is to protect patient rights, represent patients and help to work with all of the structures, be that the licensed producers or the legislature, on bringing patient awareness and advocacy forward.
Andy Lyman: And occasionally chiming in, is her husband heath.
Heath Grider: We have no official membership. We are just patients who get together and discuss needs in the community.
Andy Lyman: I met the Griders a few years ago through my reporting and they might be the best example of busting some of those stereotypes of cannabis users.
Megan Kamerick: They seem to come at this with sort of a free market approach.
Andy Lyman: They live in Portales, which is a pretty red part of the state. Heath is a registered Republican and active in his county party. Ginger is a self-described libertarian.
Ginger Grider: Oh, absolutely. You know, both of our work, especially heath’s in advocacy and being involved in the Republican party here in Roosevelt County, I mean, they set aside like a half a day up in, when they had their executive committee for the Republican party of the state, and, the Chair from Roosevelt County presented arguments for medical cannabis and why the Republicans should not be against it and why they should be compassionate towards users. And, because a lot of their base is actually using behind closed doors. And I mean, yes, absolutely anyone, because…
Heath Grider: Sort of like when you see somebody from church at the bar.
Ginger Grider: Yeah. (laughs)
Heath Grider: Very much like that.
Megan Kamerick: Ginger uses the term “decriminalization” for what she’d like to see for the future of cannabis, both nationally and here in New Mexico.
Andy Lyman: now, the Merriam Webster definition of “decriminalize” is “to remove or reduce the criminal classification.” This definition is generally what lawmakers mean when they’re talking about decriminalizing cannabis.
Megan Kamerick: And, just a reminder: the state recently, quote, decriminalized cannabis, meaning they lessened the penalties. But here’s what Ginger and Heath mean when they talk about decriminalization:
Ginger Grider: I'm not so much for legalization as I am decriminalization. We would absolutely like to see it treated like any other crop -- tomatoes, corn, green beans. You know, I mean, there are so many things that are currently available. Just like if, it's not against the law to grow tomatoes, it should not be against the law to grow cannabis. And so, that's the difference. Decriminalization says just, “not against the law. Go forth and do your business and, you know, don't hurt anybody.”
Megan Kamerick: Ginger says she didn’t always see things this way, though. It was her husband heath who helped reshape her views.
Ginger Grider: I was a good Christian woman and a mother and was absolutely, totally against it and said, “you know, no way. What if I had to take the kids to the hospital? What if this? What if that?” And he actually just went out one day and came back and said, “here,” and he brought me a little vaporizer and some cannabis and said, “just try it.”
Megan Kamerick: Ginger began exhibiting multiple signs of autoimmune disorders back in 2002. Since then, she’s been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an adrenal insufficiency and another inflammatory disease. She says the vaporizer heath brought her made a world of difference.
Ginger Grider: And it was amazing. I mean, within an hour of using, my neck had relaxed and I didn't have a headache. And it just kind of opened my eyes to how stupid I had been.
Andy Lyman: Getting back to the issue of rules and regulation, Ginger and Heath think getting rid of the maximum number of plants both producers and patients can grow, might help with what they see as a shortage of cannabis, especially in rural patients.
Heath Grider: and not only that, we need to open up licensing. We need other options. Oklahoma has a very free market solution to medical cannabis. And they brought in three hundred million last year. They have almost three hundred thousand patients in two years. And New Mexico falls so far behind, because we protect our existing businesses. They will not allow anybody… every time there's a task force and I've been on several of them, they will not address this issue. They address it from the point of protectionism, and I don't feel like that's good for New Mexico business.
Megan Kamerick (from interview): You brought up Oklahoma. You thought they had a good free market solution. What… can you tell me what that looks like and why we should consider it?
Heath Grider: They don't do any protectionism. If you want to get a license to distribute, manufacture, grow, farm, transport, anything… you send the state twenty-five hundred dollars. They do your background check and issue the license. New Mexico issues no licensing to speak of. They exercise protectionism over the existing businesses, and it's not… competition makes better pricing, it just does. It makes a better product and better access. It’s better all the way around. We've got Circle K's. We've got Alsup’s. We've got Stripes. Now, if the state came in and said only Alsup’s and Stripes and Circle K can operate a convenience store in New Mexico, it would be silly.
Andy Lyman: Let’s go back to Dominick Zurlo for a moment. He told us that, yes, the state is not issuing any more production licenses, or a license to grow cannabis. But, he says there are other opportunities.
Megan Kamerick (from interview): Is there a cap on how many licenses the state allows?
Dominick Zurlo: So, right now there, the state is not actually issuing additional licenses. There is not a cap, per se, but it is a process. Not quite an RFP, or a request for proposal process, but very similar. Where, when the licensure do get opened up, what happens is, the applicants apply. They have to complete their forms. They have to submit all the documents that are required, such as background checks for employees, their plans and procedures and policies of how they're going to keep the patients safe when the patients come into a dispensary, for example, how they're going to keep the medication safe when it's being grown, manufactured, all of those types of things. They have to submit those and then they are reviewed. And then, out of that process, those that have the highest scores, essentially, or have the best proposals, are the ones that will end up getting licensed. But, part of that will also depend on the projections of how the program is growing, what the needs of the patients will be. So, at this point, right now, with the new plant counts, we are seeing enough of a supply and so, at this point, we haven't opened those particular licenses. Now with that said, there are other areas of the industry, it's not all just about the cultivation and production. There's also manufacturing, where individual or where organizations and companies are turning around and taking the cannabis and creating the variety of products that patients need and want. And so, those manufacturing licenses are open. So, manufacturers can apply, or individuals who want to be manufacturers. The laboratory licensure is also open. So, organizations and labs that want to be doing the testing that we have coming up, can also apply for it. We also opened up the courier applications, which has been extremely important during the covid-19 situation because that really allows for there to be even less interaction between the patient and then, other people, because instead of having to go to a dispensary, they can actually have it delivered to their home. And we've always had couriers, but we also, with this current situation, said, “we need to increase that.” And so we have.
Megan Kamerick: Wait… so is there enough cannabis or not?
Andy Lyman: That seems to be the question of the century. Folks like the Griders and Duke Rodrigez of Ultra Health say that no, there is not enough cannabis to stock the shelves of dispensaries in rural parts of the state. But, there is another school of thought that some of these dispensaries have too many locations.
Megan Kamerick: Growing Forward is a collaboration between New Mexico PBS and New Mexico Political Report, thanks to a grant from the New Mexico Local News Fund.
Andy Lyman: Our production team includes Producer and Editor Bryce Dix. Also, New Mexico PBS Executive Producer Kevin McDonald and New Mexico Political Report Editor Matthew Reichbach. Join us next week, when we examine issues surrounding tribal groups and legalization.
Megan Kamerick: Be sure to subscribe to “growing forward” wherever you get your podcasts. You can also get caught up on all of episodes so far, by heading to NMPBS dot org and searching for “growing forward.” Also, if you like what you’re hearing, leave us a review. It really helps us out.
Arizona Legalizes Recreational Cannabis | Special
This week, Arizona voters approved an initiative to legalize recreational cannabis in that state. Hosts Andy Lyman and Megan Kamerick talk to Arizona Republic reporter Andrew Oxford about what that initiative entailed and what impacts it may have on New Mexico's push to also legalize recreational cannabis in the upcoming 60-day session.
Kevin McDonald: Welcome to a special edition of the podcast “Growing Forward,” a project that’s all about the cannabis industry here in New Mexico. This is a joint project between New Mexico PBS, the New Mexico Political Report. and, we took this week off in terms of a regular episode because of election day. We knew everybody was going to be focused on that. We’ll be back with a brand-new episode next Tuesday, all about testing and licensing and regulation of the medical cannabis industry and the concerns and issues there, when it comes to a potential legal market. but, the big news this week was our neighbors to the west, Arizona… voters there actually passed an initiative that made recreational cannabis legal in arizona. and so, that left us wondering what that means for our efforts here. Of course, those in favor of legalizing in New Mexico have been pushing, about, wanting to be one of the first in our region, largely for tourism dollars, even, around people coming into the state and the tax revenues that would be generated by that. And, obviously, Arizona being very close, now headed down this path, what impact will that have on that, if the lawmakers are able to push through that proposal in next year’s session? We want to talk a little bit about the timelines, if we’re able to do that, how that lines up with Arizona? What led to this in Arizona? So, we turned to Andrew Oxford. He used to work at the Santa Fe New Mexican but is now at the Arizona Republic. So, luckily, he had a few moments for us this week, so we thought we’d bring you a special episode, a conversation with him about what the initiative in Arizona looks like, what it would do, and, again, how it impacts our efforts here in New Mexico. As you’re going to hear, it sounds like the clock is definitely ticking for New Mexico now, if they want this to be the revenue generator that so many are pushing, now that Arizona has done that. Of course, Texas does not seem to imminently be moving in that direction and so, there would still be benefit from the tourism aspect there. But, Arizona is now going to be off the table, as far as that goes, before too long. So, we just wanted to break it all down for you. We appreciate Andrew Oxford and his time that he gave up this week. But here now, is our hosts of “Growing Forward,” Andy Lyman of the New Mexico Political Report and Megan Kamerick. She is a correspondent here at NMPBS. She is also an on-air host at KUNM radio, does a lot of freelance work. Lots of different places, you’re familiar with their voices now from past episodes. But here they are now, talking to Andrew Oxford about the developments in Arizona this week.
Andy Lyman: We’re Talking with Andrew Oxford, reporter with The Arizona Republic. Of course, we're talking to him today because he's, he was a reporter for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He's covered legislature issues here and now he's doing the same in Arizona. So, thanks for talking with us, Andrew.
Andrew Oxford: Hey, good to talk with you.
Andy Lyman: It's nice to see you again after probably, I think it's been years. So, I understand that you're not necessarily covering this proposition. I should back up… what we're talking about today is Arizona voters approved, I think nearly by 60%, proposition 207, which essentially legalizes recreational use cannabis. My understanding is that as soon as March medical dispensaries can start selling recreational-use cannabis, but the tax issue doesn't go into effect, I think, until 2021, Is that right?
Andrew Oxford: Right, and a number of things will begin happening as this rolls out. One is, you're going to have the existing dispensaries, but we do have a medical, You know, medical marijuana program… the dispensaries are going to be able to sell to anyone, whether or not you’re card holder, adults 21 and over. You're also going to have, It'll be legal to grow your own up to six plants at home for personal use. And if you've been convicted of marijuana possession in the past, you can begin the process of working to expunge those records. So, there are a few different facets to this.
Andy Lyman: So, I have a story out today, kind of examining what sort of impact legalization in Arizona has on New Mexico. A lot of people are saying for New Mexico, if we want to legalize it, it needs to happen next spring in the legislative session, to sort of stay in parity with Arizona. Do you have any insight as to how that interplay is, given your expertise of New Mexico and Arizona?
Andrew Oxford: Yeah, you know, I think that, I recall, you know, when we were covering the legislature there in Santa Fe, One of the arguments that proponents could point to was the potential to attract tourists, people from neighboring states, because Arizona Didn't have legal cannabis. Texas certainly didn't. I think there was also this expectation that neither of those states would move necessarily, particularly quickly to legalize cannabis. Arizona had a measure to legalize in 2016. it failed at the ballot box, not by a lot but it, it did fail. And I think that that probably gave some folks a sense that, if New Mexico could do this, it would be in a good spot, right there in between two states where this wasn't legal. i think that that… this obviously takes away Some of that advantage to New Mexico. There's, I don't really think, so much, that argument anymore, that, “oh you know, folks will be coming from Arizona.” But you know, I think that The other thing about how this pans, That's really pretty distinct from New Mexico, is that this had to go to the ballot box. I can't see the Arizona Legislature approving this, even if Democrats had won a majority, which they didn't, even know they really pushed… had, you know, very narrow margins Now. this was something that wasn't going to pass the Arizona Legislature. So, this is something that really, Arizona is able to do because of its initiative process. New Mexico, obviously, doesn't have that. And I think that, You know, that means that it… I don't think it's necessarily a reflection of public attitudes being different In Arizona, New Mexico. I think it's just reflection of the political process is being really different. And what the possibilities are for people who want to kind of bypass gridlock in the legislature.
Andy Lyman: Another issue that we've discussed on our podcast is, Sort of the, the issue of there's obviously tax revenue opportunities, but then there's also sort of social restorative justice issues. and, For those that don't know, New Mexico does have an experiment law, a very new expungement law, on the books. My understanding is that this proposition would also include experiments for previous convictions, Right?
Andrew Oxford: Yeah, that's really been a big part of the conversation from four years ago to today. And a big part of trying to rally together a coalition that could get this proposal Over 50% plus one in Arizona, Right? Arizona’s proposition will allow people to petition to have their records expunged. now, Interestingly, Arizona doesn't really have that process for other laws. this creates that for this. It also allows prosecutors to proactively expunge convictions. so, you know, they can begin this process, sort of, on a larger scale if they want to. You've seen the Democratic candidate for county attorney here in Maricopa County, who's been in a pretty competitive race with the republican incumbent, you know, pledging that he would really make an effort to work on that issue if he’s elected. but, that's been a big part of, I think, addressing concerns that legalizing marijuana would really just be a boon for the industry and not necessarily for people who've been adversely impacted by these laws in the past. It still didn't really satisfy everybody. We did see a number of groups on the left, right, probably, most prominently, la lucha, which has been doing a lot of The legwork organizing communities going into this election and has been doing legwork for years on the ground, you know, organizing to Stop joe arpaio, really working at a grassroots level and communities. they raised a number of concerns that this just doesn't go far enough in terms of undoing Some of the adverse impacts of drug laws in the state. But, I think that the argument from proponents of prop 207 has been, “Look, we’ve got the votes this year. This is passing with 59% right now. we can, we can allow people to have this sort of process of expungement. we can get this done and stop The felony prosecutions that we're seeing for, you know, virtually any amount, any amount of possession.” So, You know, it certainly includes everybody, But it was a big part, I think, of the conversations over the last four years of what needed to change between the 2016 proposition and the 2020 proposition.
Megan Kamerick: What did… Can I ask, what did Lucha and other groups want to see more of in the bill, to sort of have a restorative justice, kind of, bent?
Andrew Oxford: Yeah, you know, one of the concerns that we've seen is really over, also the way that the licensing is going to be set up. this builds on the state's existing dispensary framework. so, The dispensaries that are operating will be able to open their doors and serve people whether or not they're their cardholders. this proposition will include some additional licenses that are intended for companies that aren’t currently in the business. You know, the state's going to have to figure out exactly how those are awarded. this does leave some regulatory discretion to the state, But there's always been this argument looming over this proposition that this still gives dispensary companies that are already here, too much of a monopoly over the market. And so, that's been a big, You know, a big criticism against this, really on both sides.
Megan Kamerick: So, the idea is, like, people who are, who are hurt the most from the drug laws in the past Don't stand to gain from it being legal. that's kind of the argument…
Andrew Oxford: Yeah. You see that in a number of states, right? you know, this point that this is obviously a big industry. And if you're going to allow that industry to expand, are you just allowing the existing companies to expand? are you creating opportunities for new businesses new entrepreneurs to come in? Yeah, that's kind of the debate you see in a lot of places, right? and Arizona was no exception. I think there's definitely still a concern that this doesn't go far enough to expand the number of people, who are actually in the business, creating more opportunities for entrepreneurs. and, we'll see how this plays out with the additional licenses. Like I said, it does leave some regulatory discretion to the state. So, that obviously didn't satisfy everybody but Again, I think the argument again and again for proponents was, this is what, you know, this is what we can do this year.
Andy Lyman: I realized I may have missed part of your introduction. So, anybody that's just joining us now, just a reminder, We're talking to Andrew Oxford. He is a reporter with The Arizona Republic newspaper in, I guess based out of Phoenix. Is that right, Andrew?
Andrew Oxford: Yeah, beautiful downtown Phoenix.
Andy Lyman: I have a question about, Sort of, the history of these attempts. My understanding is 2016 was the last time they tried to proposition like this. Do you know sort of the breakdown of support or opposition, geographically in Arizona?
Andrew Oxford: Yeah, the, you know, this would… I think, long had been seen as a tough sell in Arizona, Right? I think Arizona was considered a socially conservative state in a lot of ways. And so, 2016… I think, for a lot of people, kind of confirmed that. this failed, Like I said. not by a huge margin, but it did fail. and, you know, this year, I think a number of things lined up where the opposition really was not as well organized, not as well funded as obviously the proponents. I don’t think you ever could be, considering that The industry, The dispensaries, Were willing to pour millions of dollars into this. But, you still had opposition from socially conservative groups. the Center for Arizona policy, which is a socially conservative Think Tank, and an advocacy group here in the valley, They really, you know, in a lot of ways, spearheaded the fight and lead the fight against this. you have, you know, Arizona has a large LDS community and the church has obviously been vocally opposed throughout the years. you've also had, you know, the governor has been pretty clear that he's opposed. He was, if you… anyone who votes in Arizona, you get a little pamphlet in the mail that has all the arguments for and against every proposition. it’s printed up by election officials and you can read through them. and the governor was in there, explaining, You know, why he's opposed to this. You could ask him for years. His answer was always the same. He doesn't think Arizona gets any better off by, you know, legalizing weed. So, you've had a lot of the opposition has remained the same. I think some of the opposition that was less fierce, you know, the business community, I didn't see fighting this Perhaps in a way that opponents would have hoped. This is a big election year. there are a lot of things on the ballot. CONTROL of THE ARIZONA LEGISLATURE IS ON THE BALLOT. a tax measure… it was basically raising taxes for high income earners To fund education. that was on the ballot. That's really a business community priority. So, a lot of that… a lot of those resources were diverted to that, and away from stopping this proposal, which I think, in some ways, Critics have seen not necessarily as more and more of an inevitability Anyways, but as something that is less galvanizing as a political issue, maybe, right? as you can see by the numbers, this passing the 59, 60%. This is passing in all but three of Arizona's 15 counties. This is something that is, I think, was going to be increasingly hard to rally opposition against as we have seen other states. And I think…
Megan Kamerick: Yeah. Oh, no. I'm sorry. I was curious if any of the opponents had argued for… was it just like, no, no, no, or was, how about decriminalize? where there any, like interim steps, instead of getting full legalization?
Andrew Oxford: That's a really good point. one of the main arguments that opponents brought forward Was that, the initiative process was really the wrong way to do this. So, if you pass something like this through an initiative in Arizona, You're making it very hard to change. now, for Proponents, that's a good thing, right? You don't want the Arizona Legislature, which is going to be controlled by Republicans, very likely, in the next session to come back and completely change the law. We have what's called the voter Protection Act that says they would need a very large majority in the legislature to be able to do something like that. But, opponents said you know if there's something about this we don't like, like that licensing scheme or like the expungement process, If you don't think that goes far enough. You, You're going to have to pass more intitiatives. So, that was really a big part of the argument was, is it a good idea to lock these laws into place, to make it really hard to go back and tweak things? this is a sprawling area of policy that a bunch of different areas of State governments have policy at different levels. Do you want to lock that in Through the ballot box, Or would it be better to do something in the legislature? Again, opponents would argue that's a false argument, because nothing's going to happen at the legislature. but, I think that really was the one of the biggest arguments I've heard against it, was that you would have fewer options, or if you were unhappy with this, for changing it in the future.
Andy Lyman: We talked to some lawmakers early on in this project about, you know, obviously, you mentioned, we don't have proposition Measures like Arizona does. it's the constitutional amendments. even so, anything like that sort of takes some time to work out the kinks, the specifics of it. I noticed baked into this proposition is a 16% excise tax. and it says to fund public programs. So what else is there for the legislature to, sort of, debate on? Does that mean that they have to decide where that money goes? What else is there… what other work for the legislature is there going forward?
Andrew Oxford: Yeah. Well, for one thing, you know, the distribution of a lot of that money is already determined. I mean, you know, again, part of building the, I think, the support for this going into 2020 was being very clear that a lot of this money that would be raised through legalization would go to Public Safety, would go to, you know, community colleges, would go to some different areas. By the way, that's something that also opponents have pointed out, is that, technically, if you look at this this funds the police. this increases funding for the police. but, The issue of where does the legislature go from here? there are somethings left up to the state and, In many ways, more on the regulatory end. You know, for example, the State Department health services is going to be responsible for these additional licenses. They're still going to have oversight of the dispensary program. So, you know, You're going to have a state government that didn't want to see this proposition pass now responsible for regulating it. And I think that's going to be interesting to watch. You know, as for how much money does this give the legislature to work with in crafting a budget? You know, obviously, proponents were really bullish on the opportunities for this to raise money over time. With legislators, I think, particularly in the majority, where there wasn't a lot of support for this in the first place, had always been more cautious. and it always… i don't think anyone's necessarily going into this session Banking on there being a ton of money from this coming down the chute. Maybe I'll be wrong. Maybe, you know, in a few months. People will change their tune. But, like I said… the people writing the budget, by and large, are people who Didn't expect this pass, didn’t want it to pass. and I don't think they're necessarily counting on this in this budget cycle.
Andy Lyman: Is there room to add additional taxes to it, going forward, if they meet next year and start discussing this stuff? do you see that happening?
Andrew Oxford: It's a good question. you know, like I said, you can't… It'd be very difficult to go back and tweak What is passed by the voters. If the legislature wanted to pass Other taxes that would affect this, that's a good question of whether or, you know, how they could do that. I think we would have to see. I'd be curious if that would invite some debate over whether that infringes on what the voters passed, For example. you know, voters voted for 16%. Is it fair to take up 20 when they said 16%? you know, we could have that kind of conversation, if there's a move to dramatically change the numbers.
Megan Kamerick: I had a question about you said… so, right now, similar to New Mexico, The Department of Health seems, the main regulatory body. but, clearly that will have to change, to some extent, if you're going to full recreational, or full legalization, I should say?
Andrew Oxford: Well, it’s department health services that is going to have to figure out the new licensing system for the licenses to be distributed. obviously when it comes to things like enforcement and dealing with, you know, Workplace issues, you know, labor laws, everything like that, this is going to touch on a bunch of different areas, when it comes to things like zoning and sort of local-level issues of Where can dispensaries go? how can they operate? You know, that's going to very much be a, sort of, local government thing. So yes, it's gonna have a lot of tentacles into different parts of government. but, You know, probably that big piece right is now deciding where those additional licenses go. that's going to fall to the department health services.
Megan Kamerick: And are the people, The folks writing the budget… they're not anticipating a ton of revenue from legalizing right away, because they're seeing expenses of, like, figuring out the regulatory structure? is that why they don't think they're going to see a lot of revenue or…
Andrew Oxford: Yeah, I think part of it is just the getting up, getting, you know, set up and running. It's kind of hard to know, you know, what would the demand be? what would the revenue picture be like for something that isn't there yet, Right? so, i see… i think the official numbers I've been seeing out of legislative forecast has been fairly conservative. And, you know, i think it's going to be kind of Hard to tell where this leaves things going into the first immediate budget. it could be kind of like what we saw, If I recall correctly in some states, Where it took, maybe a little bit of time, to see the revenue really pick up with the expansion of businesses, as you know, markets kind of developed and things like that. You know, we could be heading for the same case here, but Yeah, I hadn't seen a huge, you know, push from legislative forecasters that, if this passes, This is going to, you know, add this huge chunk of money to what will be able to work with next year.
Andy Lyman: Well, I think that's all the questions I have, do you have anything else, Megan before we let Andrew go?
Megan Kamerick: Yeah, I did have a question, Just some of the details that still have to be worked out as this passes, like law enforcement issues around driving while high. I mean, people tend to bring this stuff up when we talk about legalizing here like, you know, what's that going to look like? (laughs)
Andrew Oxford: Yeah, I think that's right and that was certainly a part of the discussion here, too, was, you know, what do you do with all these additional, all these different laws. And again, that's where it's going to kind of fall to regulatory and rulemaking agencies that are you know already in state government to have to sort A lot of this out and how this is actually going to function on a day-to-day level. And, I think that's going to be a kind of, to be seen issue, because like I said, this is An administration and government currently that hadn't supported this passing. I'm interested to see how they approach the process of rolling it out, implementing new policies, procedures, just how permissive or restrictive those might be. You know, and if this comes down to sort of boards and commissions, the same issue. you know, boards and commissions where a lot of the nominees were picked by politicians who did not want this to pass. And so, you know, I think, I think that'll really be the thing to watch going forward, is just how much support is there for making this successful, maybe in the way that voters intended? and how much of an effort is there through, kind of the, the administrative levers of the state to maybe pull back on some elements of this and pump the brakes a bit?
Megan Kamerick: And, I was curious if Lucha and other groups had expressed concerns about… some of the data I've seen from Colorado is that yes, even though it's legal, the people who are perhaps pulled over for, I don't know, driving while high or something like that still tend to be people of color.
Andrew Oxford: Yeah, I think that, and that's exactly the thing is, you know, this argument that this isn't necessarily going to change how police police the communities, that have been for a long time really adversely impacted by these laws. You know, it changes what people can be charged with, but it doesn't necessarily change the way that, for example, police might be operating. So, we definitely heard that. I would note that, you know, groups like lucha were opposed. I would point out that, really, their opposition was notably late in the process. I don't think it was until early voting was well under way that I actually saw, you know, ads and You know, a push by them. And obviously, like I said, it’s a busy election year. there were a lot of other things that people were working on. But, I think on the one hand, it was a sign that There was not a lot of investment in stopping this from the left and attacking some of the points that that folks on the left were satisfied with, But at the same time that that criticism has not gone away. that there is still an appetite for, you know, addressing elements of this proposition as time goes by and addressing how its implemented, as time goes by, from the left as well.
Megan Kamerick: I had one more question, Andrew. Thanks. I appreciate you giving us your time. But, we don't have the initiative process here in New Mexico, as you know, because you reported here for many years. But, it's interesting… what I'm hearing you say is that, Once the voters passed this, you can't really… it's hard for the lawmakers, Many of the lawmakers who proposed this, to go in and tweak. Can they do other things? I'm thinking of the bill in Florida that passed, that would have allowed Former felons to vote, which was passed by the voters. It was a similar initiative. but, the legislature then added this caveat in like, but you have to pay all your outstanding fees, which became a mess, because no one could tell them what their fees were. but, it hamstrung something the voters had approved. So, is there any way that can happen in Arizona?
Andrew Oxford: This is an ongoing Issue in Arizona, and, you know, I cover politics, not drug policy. So, I'm kind of fascinated by exactly what you talked about. Yeah, I think that there is a long conversation we had after Tuesday, about how you saw progressive policies passing at the ballot box In places where progressive candidates would not do well. and, you, know maybe Arizona is a case in point in that. this is Passing a lot better than Joe Biden did. And, I know you can argue whether or not this is a progressive policy per se, or a libertarian policy, or whatever you want to call it, but the ballot box is really crucial to all of this happening. And there… you've been seeing groups working for years in Arizona to use the ballot box. you get around the legislature, which has long resisted things like this, as well as, you know, this is how Arizona raised the minimum wage. It wasn't the republican controlled legislature raising the minimum wage here. It was voters in the ballot box doing it. And so, that has really sparked A push by a lot of Republican lawmakers and by business groups to try and limit the initiative process as much as possible. You've seen a lot of proposals, for one thing to make it a lot harder to get things on the ballot. Yeah, there was one proposal, for example, that, You would have to get signatures. not just a certain number of signatures, but a certain number in a certain number of counties. So, you couldn't, you know, it would become almost impossibly expensive to fan out across the state and be able to get signatures across the map. You've seen a lot of efforts like that to make the initiative process harder, To make laws expire after their passed, after a certain number of years. Things like that. And then on the back end, when things pass you've seen, you know, the legislature sometimes push to see how far can they really get in changing what it was the voters passed, to Go more their way? or, to or to fit more in what they would rather do? and, you know, that oftentimes, that’ll end up in court. I'm sure there will be some legal fights over what this really looks like, how this is really implemented, what the legislature can really say about this. That'll wind up in court. And that's exactly why we have, you know, we call it the voter Protection Act. it's A law that says, you're going to need a large majority in the legislature to be able to change what it was the voters passed, because this has been such a fight over the years with the legislative trying to go back and tweak the language of these initiatives.
Andy Lyman: How much power do counties have to maybe zone out these sort of things or to make themselves sort of a dry County. you see that with alcohol across the nation, where these pockets of counties that don't allow…
Andrew Oxford: Yeah, you see, You know, definitely in local communities, often at the town level, city level, you know, real fights over what zoning should look like for dispensaries and efforts to keep dispenseraries out, move them to certain areas. So again, another area where I would expect to see a lot of a lot of battles. Although, like I said, we already have, you know, this builds on a mature dispensary infrastructure as it is. but, i've seen cities use that, those leavers of zoning and Sort of, you know, regulations over when and where you can do business.
Andy Lyman: Well, Andrew, thank you so much for taking your time and talking with us. It gives us some good perspective on, sort of, how this all plays into New Mexico's battle with legalization.
Megan Kamerick: we do miss Is having your reporting in New Mexico, Andrew.
Andy Lyman: Yes.
Megan Kamerick: good to talk to you. (laughter)
Andy Lyman: Thank you.
Andrew Oxford: Thanks.
Kevin McDonald: Alright, we hope you enjoyed that interview with Andrew Oxford. Again, we want to thank him for his time. He’s a reporter at the Arizona Republic, but has worked here in New Mexico in the past, at the Santa Fe New Mexican. So, he’s familiar with efforts here to legalize recreational cannabis. And now, of course, his new home state of Arizona, voters there passed a recreational initiative this week and so, that’s going to have a lot of ripple impacts here in New Mexico. We, of course, are following all those developments. We will continue to track that and will just put an extra bright spotlight on the issue in the upcoming legislative session. So, this is Growing Forward, a podcast all about the cannabis industry in New Mexico. A special episode this week. We’ll be back with a new episode next tuesday. Again, that’s on regulation, licensing… all the technical issues that come around this industry. And, it’s complicated. I can’t even begin to tell you how complicated it is, but we’ll dive in to some of that next week for sure. We want to encourage you to, if you haven’t already, to subscribe to the podcast, wherever you get your podcasts. And, while you’re there, do us a favor, leave us a review. Rate the podcast. It really helps us out. We appreciate that very much. We’re also working on other episodes, coming up. We’re going to be looking at how the cannabis industry in New Mexico plays out in tribal communities. It’s a whole other business there and equally as complicated. We’ll dive into that. We’ll also have some odds and ends of things we haven’t had the chance to cover. And, of course, we’re keeping an eye on 2021, when this will be brought up again in the legislature. Right now, we don’t even know how the legislative session will play out. Considering we’re still in a pandemic. Just a ton of questions left there, but we are keeping track of it and dedicated to following through on the developments, as they come. So, we encourage you to keep up to date. you can also, on our website, at nmpbs.org, search for Growing Forward. You can find the podcast there and listen back to past episodes. We’ve had some really great ones on just such a fascinating topic. It’s one thing, when you’re talking about building an industry from scratch, but an industry like this, that covers business. It covers health. It covers so many areas. It’s super complicated, as we’ve talked about time and time again. Really a fascinating thing to follow along with. And so, we hope you will listen and share the word. Subscribe, rate and review. And we will be back again next tuesday. Until then, have a great weekend.
This week, we go back to school on cannabis education. And, we're not just talking about understanding how to get your medical card and how the plant can help alleviate pain and discomfort or even, potentially, help a person kick an addiction to opiates. It also has to do with how much cannabis dispensary employees should know about medical conditions and advising patients on the proper strains and doses to take. We'll walk you through the process from beginning to end and find out what kind of training requirements the experts say there should be in this burgeoning industry.
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Andy Lyman: I'm Andy Lyman with New Mexico Political Report.
Megan Kamerick: And I'm Megan Kamerick with New Mexico PBS. This is Growing Forward, a podcast about cannabis in New Mexico.
Andy Lyman: In this series so far, we've covered a lot about the politics of cannabis, the plant itself, and we've talked to some producers. But what happens after you're approved by a medical professional to use cannabis?
Megan Kamerick: How do you know how much to take? And what do you take? Exactly?
Jacob Candelaria: And I do think we could do a lot better as a state in making sure that those frontline workers are equipped with the knowledge and information that they need to provide that guidance to patients.
Andy Lyman: How much does that dispensary employee actually know about your medical condition?
Shannon Jaramillo: He goes into the field and he walks in the door and then he goes, what the hell did I get myself into? Because now somebody's grandmother approaches him. And she says, I have diabetes, and I take this medicine and this medicine, this medicine, this medicine, what strain do you suggest, 19-year-old Tim?
Megan Kamerick: And how do you actually use cannabis, to say... kick opiates?
Jeff Holland: It's not the cure all. It's not the be all end all just like cannabis isn't. So, the more robust set of tools that we have to offer the people that are coming to us for help, the better off we are.
Andy Lyman: This week, we go in search of the answers to those questions as we head back to school on cannabis education.
Megan Kamerick: Andy, one thing I keep coming back to as we work on this podcast is what happens once someone gets their medical cannabis card and what kind of medical knowledge do the people at these dispensaries have?
Andy Lyman: Those are really important questions, Megan that I think many first time patients may be a little nervous about asking. There are so many strains, profiles, and ways to take cannabis. You can look at it like asking your pharmacist about which over the counter medication is best for headaches, except you're not talking to a pharmacist and all the products or cannabis or derivatives of cannabis. Through my reporting, I've had a lot of conversations with Shannon Jaramillo. She's the founder and CEO of cannabis New Mexico Staffing, which is essentially a staffing agency and education center all in one.
Megan Kamerick: She was also on Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s legalization task force.
Shannon Jaramillo: I want us to be a resource for the entire country and a role model of education. We've never been one before. But we could be because we have such a history with this plant. And we have the ability to come together. And we've, we've had a lot of this information since the 70s about the therapeutic use of marijuana. And so, I feel like we could be proponents and learning from these models, creating an innovative streamline model, and then really speaking on the standard from New Mexico out into the country. That would be amazing.
Megan Kamerick: I asked Shannon if she could walk me through the process from first getting a medical cannabis card, to buying cannabis for the first time from a dispensary.
Shannon Jaramillo: So, I am new to cannabis, I get these calls all the time. And maybe a family member or a friend says “I want to get my card, what do I do?” And so, we have touch points in the community of doctors, cannabis doctors, cannabis card providers, that they can meet with and/or they can go to their primary care and have that conversation that's a bit of a different coaching moment for somebody looking and people tend to want to go to these cannabis doctors. So, you start there and you go and you get an evaluation. The forms that that provider uses is from the department of health. You can find those forms yourself on the department of health website right now on the medical cannabis division sector of that website. And the potential patient has to go through and prove their qualifying condition against the list of qualifying conditions that we have in the state of New Mexico. And the advocate for that patient is the doctor that signs off. That form goes to the department of health and the department of health and evaluates and signs off and that card is mailed to the patient with a list of resources. So yeah, now you've got your card, you're excited, you've got a list of resources department of health sent to you and they sent you all the dispensaries in your area and you can call. Well, you've got to go and you can either a) register yourself over the phone as a new patient because every single location, no matter if you've already registered with that with that brand, you've got to register as a new patient just walking in the door. That's their way of tracking basically tracking you and your card has a number on it. So now you go to Andy's dispensary and they'll give you a clipboard and ask you to sign some paperwork, verify HIPPA that they are HIPPA-compliant. And then from there, they'll give you a little tour of you know, come on in and some do it better than others and some are still learning and some are newer. And so, as you go through, they're allowing you to choose a product. And I would say that as a patient, your first time can be very overwhelming. For sure.
Andy Lyman: Shannon wants to train future dispensary employees about cannabis and its uses. Here she's using a hypothetical employee named Tim, to explain how overwhelming it can be for those employees helping patients.
Shannon Jaramillo: Like, he comes to me or he tells his mom and dad, “I want to do this.” And they're like, “go for it, son.” And he goes into the field, and he walks in the door. And then he goes, what the hell did I get myself into? Because now somebody's grandmother approaches him. And she says, “I have diabetes, and I take this medicine and this medicine and this medicine, this medicine, what strain do you suggest, 19-year-old Tim?” And Tim says, “let me get right back to you.” Or Tim says, “You know, I'm going to tell you about into Indicas and Sativas”. And that's all Tim's got, right? Tim's doing his best. But those are the scenarios we've got to really get around. And we had a doctor. Dr. Avitea, I want to say, from the cancer center, came and spoke with the workgroup, and he validated what I was saying, I was like, yes, because he said, “you know what, I have cancer patients coming to me and stopping their treatments, because of some of the things are being told in our community. And we've got to stop telling people that this medicine cures their cancer, because then they're coming to us. Right?” And so, he suggested to the state and to the working group that we put an actual doctor at the counter of every dispensary. $75 to $150,000 later, each dispensary could have that [laughs], right? Yeah. And so, what I'm saying is, it's a big gap there of, you know, of how can we help these guys have the right tools to go in and have a good starting point?
Megan Kamerick: another part of Shannon's training is safety. But she says there's plenty of work still to be done in terms of regulations and training.
Shannon Jaramillo: I feel like it's in just a couple of buckets really. Safety, we've got to mitigate their risk. If right now, we're federally illegal, but we've got state regulations, they've got to know what they are. If we don't have banking in place, and they're having to shuffle cash around in their cars, do you want your son taking my dispensary cash and plant material from point a to point b without courier safety training, or robbery or active shooter training? We really have to address that. And we have a huge opportunity to do better by the workforce. So, safety is one of them. And then the other is just regulatory training, they've got to know the law, safety and law, right? And so I feel like I'm sorry... And then the third is the plant they have to know the updates of the plant. So how that plant are we learning about its medicinal value? How is it working with the human body? How is it working against the qualifying conditions? So those three things, you know, really in the way of training in kapusta, in a yearly updated certification process, seems to be the trend around the country that I want to bring here to New Mexico and just shed light on really.
Andy Lyman: But Shannon is also concerned that without a state approved education plan, a post legalization world can create more layers of miscommunication and confusion.
Shannon Jaramillo: Focusing in how we relay the information to the public, when the program splits up and starts to divide into different departments is certainly going to be key because the patient population historically in other states has gone down. And we've lost consumers and patient consumers to the adult use marketplace, in what I call a grey area or a big gap of where education can come in and public service announcements. And we can really just kind of come together and say “wait, this these are your processes and let's show you your benefits of being in the program.” Without that educational bridge, I'm fearful that the program will take on the likeness of other medical programs that we've seen in other states and it will start to dwindle. So I'm again focused on creating those bridges. And I think that it will be important that the state of New Mexico and the department of health and regulation and licensing and any of the other departments that are involved, that they get involved in that educational piece.
Andy Lyman: You may remember Rachael Speegle, the CEO of the Verdes Foundation from previous episodes. She says that at Verdes, they make a point to not even take part in the certification process.
Megan Kamerick: But, I thought patients get certified through their doctors?
Andy Lyman: Well, let's do a quick reminder an explainer about how that process can work. State law says patients have to get a recommendation from a healthcare professional. So, there are a number of dispensaries that have a medical professional on site to do those recommendations. But Rachael told us she sees that as a possible conflict of interest.
Rachel Speegle: You don't go to Walgreens to get your script, you go to Walgreens to fill your script. So, it's been really important to us to have that separation between the patient experience with their provider and then them filling their needs with our products. We do a lot of work with providers in the community because we want mainstream providers who are seeing patients in their spaces to be the ones to write these certifications or to yeah, to certify their patients that they see anyways that they already have a relationship with.
Megan Kamerick: Then there's the issue of how each product works and how well it works.
Andy Lyman: I think people might be surprised to learn the number of different forms of cannabis they can buy. For example, some dispensaries offer cannabis suppositories, but Rachael who is also a registered nurse, so she doesn't think suppositories are all that effective at delivering a dosage of cannabis.
Rachel Speegle: I think tinctures are great. My friends who live in recreational markets around the united states, when they call me for consultations, I make recommendations for the oil tinctures that are extremely medicinal. But these people are looking for anxiety help. They're looking -- they’re in recreational markets, but they're looking for the exact same type of support that a medical patient would be looking for. So, I believe that we can continue to supply effective products that are more medicinal and a little less sexy. Putting oil under your tongue is really different than eating a fruit gummy. But if we as an industry can talk to people about the benefit, whether it be recreational or medical, the benefit of those low doses, the benefit of putting oil under your tongue and understanding how to titrate it yourself. I think that that can coexist in one program. But I do think that there are some pieces that need to be attended to as you pointed out.
Megan Kamerick: One of the more contentious issues surrounding education of cannabis use is as a tool to combat symptoms related to opiate withdrawals.
Andy Lyman: A few years ago, I wrote about the department of health under former Governor Susana Martinez going out of its way to keep opioid use disorder off the list of qualified conditions. Here's Medical Cannabis Program Director Dominick Zurlo on the difference between curing a condition versus helping to alleviate symptoms of a condition.
Dominick Zurlo: At this point, medical cannabis has not been proved to cure any condition so far. It's really something that helps to alleviate, whether it be pain or other conditions, to help relieve those symptoms, and the physical discomfort or pain that's being caused by those symptoms. Now that can be different things in different ways. For example, it may help somebody who has issues with being able to keep food down, it may help them to you know, who have extreme nausea, for example, it may help them to be able to eat on a more regular basis and therefore be able to get the sustenance that we all need to live. It may help with regard to somebody who has seizures, and has issues with regard to epilepsy, for example. It may help to reduce those, and the frequency or the severity of them, but it's not going to cure it. And so, we do have to be careful when we talk about this that the qualifying conditions are that medical cannabis will help relieve the problems and the issues that those conditions cause, but not actually cure the condition itself.
Andy Lyman: Considering trying to kick opiates can result in some pretty severe symptoms. It makes sense that advocates push so hard to add opioid use disorder to the list of qualified conditions. Jeffrey Holland, in addition to fighting powdery mildew, also runs a substance abuse treatment facility.
Jeff Holland: Let's start off in the beginning instead of saying hey, you know what, here's our deal, we want to throw you on 120 milligrams of methadone. It's highly addictive, the half-life is insidious. If you're, you know, not showing up to get it on a daily basis and paying to get it, then you're probably going to go through severe withdrawal symptoms, which are much more intense than you would probably go through if you were trying to kick heroin on your own. You know, let's start at the beginning and see if we can address it with things that are a lot more kind and compassionate. Before we just start over here on the other side of the spectrum.
Jeff Holland: Look, I catch a lot of shit for this right? And to some people in my field, I'm a pariah or I'm a therapist. You know, I'm a clinical social worker. I've been in recovery for years. I don't consume cannabis, right, I don't drink and a lot of people say ”Oh, you're just pooh poohing methadone and suboxone and all that.” It's not at all there's a place for it right? But it's not the cure all is it's not the be all end all just like cannabis isn't. So, the more robust set of tools that we have to offer the people that are coming to us for help, the better off we are. And the way I like to phrase it is if you go out to eat to a buffet, do you want to go to a two-entree buffet or do you want to go to a 20-entree buffet? It's really simple. You want to go and be able to experience you know the things that will work for you and custom tailor those things to your needs as opposed to this one size fits all model.
Jeff Holland: What I'm saying is equivalent to if the check engine light comes on in your car, you don't go immediately replace the engine. And I think that's an approach that a lot of people have taken to dealing with addiction where you come to us, you say you're addicted to x, y or z and we immediately want to put you on some kind of drug replacement therapy or medication assisted treatment that is just as addictive and just as you know, much of a set of handcuffs as what you were trying to get off of in the first place. So, using a Likert scale of like a, b, c or d where a are the less intense, less harmful, less addictive things. That's where you want to start, right? And if we're truly talking about client centered therapy and client centered services, if you ask somebody who's dealing with and we'll just say, opiate or benzo addiction, one, would you choose to be off everything, period? Would you choose to be on some type of medication-assisted treatment program where, you know, it's still highly addictive and affects your body in a lot of negative ways? Or would you continue to just use the illicit drugs that you're using and continue to face those consequences? I would bet that, and it's been my experience that, 90 to 95% of the people would say, “look, if I could be my choice, I wouldn't be on anything.” And so, going from that starting point, that's what we should do is make the goal for them not to be on anything. And so, if you can start off with something, you know, being very informative about cannabis, what it does, you know, what it is what it isn’t versus maybe say, methadone versus something else. Like let's start off in the beginning.
Megan Kamerick: You know, Andy, before we talked to Shannon Jaramillo, I guess it had just never occurred to me that the people who are in these dispensaries, which are all over the state, may have some training, but there's really not a standardization of what they have to know, in order to help people who are using medical cannabis.
Andy Lyman: Yeah, I think it develops or it creates this sort of room for error or deviation. The state does have a certification requirement, but it also it's up to the dispensary owners on how much education they give to all these folks who are behind the counters helping patients, you may go into one place where somebody is really, really knowledgeable. Like we talked to Wiley Atherton. Somebody else may be on their second, third day and just on the bare minimum of standards, may not be able to provide the same sort of level that someone like Wiley can.
Megan Kamerick: In a later episode, we'll go visit a dispensary. And we talked to them about that about how their folks are trained. And obviously a lot of people get into this because they've used cannabis, it's helped them. They're very passionate about it, which is great. But that's not necessarily the same thing as helping someone who's never used it before and may have multiple medical conditions. And they have a lot of questions.
Andy Lyman: Right, we spoke to a woman in the dispensary walking out and again, we'll hear from that later, but she was a little bit knowledgeable from her, you know, previous life, somebody else may come in, in their 60s, never having touched it before. And there are, you know, some obviously some concerns of is this person behind the counter saying go ahead and smoke it, eat it, use a topical for somebody who may be sort of may freak out the first time they use it.
Megan Kamerick: So, I'm guessing that whatever happens in the legislature next year, if there is a bill about legalizing cannabis, this kind of education components gonna have to be part of it somehow.
Andy Lyman: It could be part of a full-on legalization effort course there's also room for expanding the medical law. We've seen that happen in previous legislation. So, there's also an opportunity to just do one bill that sort of tweaks education components separately from this discussion of legalization. But again, in an election year, everything is sort of up in the air and we don't really know who might be crafting this legislation. It's still too early to tell who is going to be sponsoring expansion for the medical program. We have an idea of folks who might run a recreational legalization bill, but it's really hard to say where these bills are gonna pop up and when.
Megan Kamerick: I thought was really interesting that you kind of make this equation between well, you know, you go to your pharmacist and say, which over the counter medicine should I use for this. Which is fine, except pharmacists go to school for a long time, as do doctors, as do nurses. And I'm not trying to cut down the folks working in a dispensary, but they're kind of in the same situation and right now they don't get anywhere near that kind of training.
Andy Lyman: Right. And there's an argument that, while this substance is sort of mind altering, that it's not as dangerous as if you took, you know, whole bottle of Tylenol. But yes, it's a decent point. And I think a lot of that comes down to it's not legal across the country. So, we don't have a standard of standard practice for this industry, as you do with the pharmaceutical industry.
Megan Kamerick: We're like, it's not like getting your real estate license or, you know, just name any other industry where there's a continuing education credits in place. And part of it again, we keep coming back to is like this is still on a federal level, not a legal substance, which makes all these weird permutations in the industry.
Andy Lyman: Yeah, there's not a lot of research done on the federal level. So, while there might be some, there's not a ton so that we don't have this across the board, this is you know, your federal qualifications. These are the standards and practices that you should be doing. And this is what you should not tell patients and this is what you should tell patients. It does remind me of being a pharmacist, but again, like you mentioned, it's completely different in so many ways.
Megan Kamerick: Growing Forward is a collaboration between New Mexico PBS and New Mexico Political Report, thanks to a grant from the New Mexico Local News Fund.
Andy Lyman: Our production team includes Producer and Editor Bryce Dix, also New Mexico PBS Executive Producer Kevin McDonald, and New Mexico Political Report Editor Matthew Reichbach.
Megan Kamerick: We appreciate you listening. And if you like what you hear, leave us a review. It helps us out a lot. Join us next week when we discuss the wild and wooly tale of testing and regulation in New Mexico's cannabis industry.
Heath Grider: We need to open up licensing, we need other options. Oklahoma has a very free market solution to medical cannabis. And they brought in 300 million last year. They have almost 300,000 patients in two years. Then New Mexico falls so far behind because we protect our existing businesses. They will not allow anybody -- every time there's a task force and I've been on several of them. They will not address this issue. They address it from the point of protectionism. And I don't feel like that's good for New Mexico business.
Duke Rodriguez: Here's a situation where you can overreact and have such high testing standards, you get a lot of products fail that never gets in patients’ hands. But we're willing to deal with that. All we said is whatever testing requirements you have, and we believe you should have them, they need to be based on science.
Pulling Back the Leaves
This week on "Growing Forward" we are truly pulling back the leaves, exploring more about the cannabis plant itself. Have you ever wondered how the plant works? Do you know what terpenes are? You will after listening to this episode! We'll also discuss other important issues, what goes into growing cannabis, and what it means for one of New Mexico's most precious resources: water.
Podington Bear - "Good Times"
Blue Dot Sessions - "Doghouse"
Blue Dot Sessions - "Building the Sled"
Blue Dot Sessions - "Pastel De Nata"
Blue Dot Sessions - "Roundpine"
Blue Dot Sessions - "Low Light Switch"
Christian Bjoerklund - "Hallon"
Andy Lyman: I’m Andy Lyman, with New Mexico Political Report.
Megan Kamerick: And I’m Megan Kamerick with New Mexico PBS, and this is Growing Forward, a podcast about cannabis in New Mexico. This week, we’ll be looking at the plant itself.
Wylie Atherton: Discerning cannabis is an art form that's been relegated to small, cloistered groups of people who really, really loved the plant, really loved consuming it, picking all the elements apart…
Andy Lyman: We’ll also talk about what this plant means for *water* in New Mexico.
Ryan Stoa: What I try to encourage legislatures to do, at a baseline minimum, is to at least think about this issue and think about water and, you know, more broadly speaking, environmental impacts when issuing their legalization laws and their rules and regulations around cannabis.
Megan Kamerick: And, we’ll have a conversation about the complexities of how the plant actually works.
Rachael Speegle: the more whole our food is, the more nutritional value we get out of it. And, the more whole our cannabis is, the more benefit and the more we're able to find the right balance for our patients.
Andy Lyman: Megan, which is hotter, red or green chile?
Megan Kamerick: Oh, good question... Not an easy one to answer. It can depend on who grows it, where it was grown and how someone cooks with it, right? There are a lot of issues at play, and everyone has their own opinions on the matter.
Andy Lyman: New Mexicans know there are so many factors to chile and that’s the same kind of answer Wylie Atherton would give if someone were to ask him what kind of cannabis is better.
Wylie Atherton: Cannabis has had a major impact in my life from a very young age. I became chronically ill in my mid-teens and high school, and it made a large impact on my ability to function in life. And, I found that cannabis was the number one effective treatment for my chronic nausea. And as it turns out, later down the line, depression, anxiety, some of the things that I wasn't as cognizant of. So, in 2009, I became the first minor to be enrolled in the program here in New Mexico and shortly thereafter moved to Oregon to pursue a career in cannabis. Right around the time that I started gaining momentum and looking at my future as an adult, we elected Susana Martinez, who ran on the platform of actually dissolving the medical program as it existed, which she didn't have the power to do. And I knew that, but the writing was kind of on the wall and I knew I wanted to go somewhere where I could kind of be fostered and grow the skills that I was looking for.
Andy Lyman: So, Wylie headed north to Oregon, where he would start his career in growing cannabis. He recently moved home to New Mexico and technically he’s the general manager for Seven Point Farms, which is a medical cannabis producer. But, Wylie jokingly refers to himself as “the perpetual interim head grower.”
Wylie Atherton: The talent pool for growers is limited. A lot of those people are tied up in their own projects in more established states out on the west coast, really all over the place. So, instead of trying to find the talent locally, where we weren't really comfortable with what we were coming across, we just decided to pour our resources into fostering my evolution as a grower into kind of a full-fledged operator.
Megan Kamerick: Wylie is really, kind of a cannabis sommelier.
Andy Lyman: Most definitely. I met Wylie about a year ago while reporting on the state’s medical cannabis program and he’s like a living cannabis encyclopedia.
Wylie Atherton: Discerning cannabis is an art form that's been relegated to small, cloistered groups of people who really, really loved the plant, really loved consuming it and picking all the elements apart. Like most of cannabis, that's coming out of the closet and out of the shadows and into a place where they can kind of expand and be shared. I like to think of two points on the spectrum – flavor and aroma. And, discerning flavor and aroma is something that exists in any world where there's a connoisseur, whether it's food or wine or beer or coffee, people are picking that apart and creating a language for describing it and sharing it with each other. I would add that cannabis adds an element and a dimension of complexity that isn't present with those other disciplines because it is something that interfaces with our central nervous system and our consciousness. The term a friend of mine coined, and I like to use in these discussions, is “the psychological nose.” That's how you detect what's existing on that spectrum beyond flavor and aroma, which are their own complexities. What is it that is happening when you interface with it and you plug it into your nervous system? And how does that play out for you?
Megan Kamerick: Some people might know the terms Sativa and Indica. Those are the two standard different types of cannabis. But Wylie says the plant is so much more nuanced than that.
Wylie Atherton: The gray market times, where we just didn't have language tools whatsoever to describe what was happening when we use cannabis, and so Sativa and Indica, in that sense, that terminology tends to, for the consumer, just mean is it uplifting? Sativa. Or is it relaxing? Indica. The actual nature of cannabis is way, way more complex than that, but as a baseline for people who had no language about it, you know, my parents generation and people who were smoking in the 80s and 90s and early 2000s, going from no language to talk about this to some language was a move in the right direction.
Megan Kamerick: That move, he says, includes paying attention to certain profiles and terpenes in the plant.
Wylie Atherton: Terpenes, in just a sentence, are the aromatic and the flavor compounds that are present in cannabis. Many, many, many plants utilize terpenes in their growth, whether it's to signal each other, signal pests to go away, signal beneficials or pollinators to come to them, terpenes are, they're highly volatile organic compounds. They're used by plants and animals alike to do some pretty interesting signaling and communication. As it relates to the user and connoisseur of cannabis, they bring the flavor and they bring the smell. It's pretty typical nowadays, now that terpenes are becoming more of a buzz word, and a talked about thing in dispensaries and in the cannabis community at large, for budtenders to kind of have a baseline understanding of the main players that you can expect to see in the highest concentration and the highest frequency in cannabis that's served and smoked by the general population. When we're thinking about those, we're thinking about limonene, which is present in lemons and limes, pinene, which is what gives pines their piney smell. Myrcene, which is present in both hops and mangoes. Beta caryophyllene, which is present in black pepper and on and on. You know, there's a spate of kind of the usual suspects and then what I like to call the hipster terpene's or the things that you bring up to really turn your, turn your budtender on his head and make sure that he's doing his research when he goes home. But, each of those individually has their own spectrum of effects, and then once you start putting them together and playing with different ratios, then you're really diving into a hyper-complex vision of what's actually happening when you light your bowl or when you take your hit off of your vaporizer or your pen.
Andy Lyman: Is your head spinning yet?
Megan Kamerick: To put it mildly. I really had no idea there were so many layers to this plant.
Andy Lyman: Yeah, Wylie says the human body is just as complicated as plants are and that sometimes it can be difficult to relay those complexities to patients.
Wylie Atherton: And, that's the bane of my existence, is how we honor the complexity and honor the nuance while also not alienating people who are coming to this thing by just dumping a bunch of science and information on them, when they really just needed to come in and get something to help them with a good night's sleep.
Megan Kamerick: Paying attention to those intricacies is the top mission for Rachael Speegle, the CEO of the Verdes Foundation, one of the state’s largest dispensaries.
Rachael Speegle: And so, it's a balance between the cannabinoid therapy, which is the THC and CBD and those big words that we all know. And then on the other side, there's the terpene profile, which are more of the flavonoids and aromatics of the plant. And then there's a lot in between, and we just don't quite know what it is yet. And that plant essence, the closer it stays to nature, the less extracted it is, just like our food. The more whole our food is, the more nutritional value we get out of it. And the more whole our cannabis is, the more benefit and the more we're able to find the right balance for our patients.
Megan Kamerick: All of this can be really confusing, but Wylie has a pretty good analogy.
Wylie Atherton: Think of cannabinoids as the engine or the horsepower and terpenes as the driver. So, if you have… say you’re smoking a cannabis extract like distillate that has, upwards of 80 percent THC, but there's no terpene present, you're just going to get a ton of energy, a ton of horsepower and no direction. You take that same distillate and that same high THC product and you introduce, myrcene and caryophyllene, you're generally, for most people, going to get a relaxing, mellow effect to it.
Andy Lyman: Earlier I compared the complexities of cannabis to chile. And just like farmers of chile, or any crop for that matter, cannabis growers may use pesticides and herbicides.
Megan Kamerick: So, it’s probably no surprise that just like some consumers of fruits and vegetables, cannabis consumers want to know what kinds of things were used on the plant.
Andy Lyman: We’ll get into testing and labeling in another episode, but first let’s hear from someone who’s taking a more natural approach to treating cannabis.
Jeffrey Holland: The cannabis that was growing in other areas of the world, you know, a hundred years ago, probably had an immensely more robust immune system to fight against things like this. But because we've bred so many genetic traits out of cannabis to protect itself, we brought it indoors, we've really babied it a lot, we’ve weakened its immune system in a lot of ways. And so, it becomes more susceptible to all kinds of things.
Megan Kamerick: That’s Jeffrey Holland, and one of those things that cannabis is susceptible to is something called powdery mildew. Holland, with his business partner, Dr. Siv Watkins, started 11 Biomics.
Andy Lyman: Watkins came up with a way to help boost a plant’s immune system as an alternative to fighting powdery mildew with sprays and chemicals. Dr. Watkins was unable to speak with us, but Holland explains how the process works.
Jeffrey Holland: What my partner has been able to do is go into the microbiome of the plant, harvest microbial agents that, in conjunction with each other, create, like, an anti-powdery mildew army, for lack of a better phrase. And what we can do is, we can grow them up in the lab. We can apply them to a plant in its infancy and use it as a prophylactic. And how that works is you put it on there. And when powdery mildew starts to proliferate, these microbial agents are triggered and they go and they feed on powdery mildew. That's all they do. So, they eat all the powdery mildew and all the powdery mildew is gone, they basically go back down to baseline level so they don't affect the terpene profile. They don't affect microbial. They don't affect anything as far as the growth of the health of the plant. And so, it can be used ideally, if, in the perfect world, you use them as a prophylactic on all your clones and seedlings as they grow.
Andy Lyman: Holland, who has a background in substance abuse treatment, says the company started as a brainstorm session between him and Watkins.
Jeffrey Holland: A really good friend of mine, Dr. Siobhan Watkins and I were talking. I had already been involved in the cannabis industry for a little while, and we just talked about how we could help people in rural areas dealing with substance use disorder, mental health issues, because there's so few resources. And, we had met at a local restaurant. And I just said, “you know, if we could use your brain to come up with something organic and natural to cure one of the handful of things that cannabis growers deal with on a regular basis and in terms of pests and things that negatively affect crops,” I said “we could use that money to then pump back into the community to help these populations.” And she said, “what would you choose as the thing to directly help?” And I said, “well, powdery mildew is pretty prolific among cannabis growers across the country.” She took that back to her Frankenstein laboratory. And she's a pretty brilliant person. And within six months, she said, “hey, I think I'm on to something.” And so, we ran with it. Last year, we were invited to a biotech incubator and business accelerator called “indie bio” in Silicon Valley. They gave us two hundred fifty thousand dollars and lab space and a crash course in how to attract venture capitalists and run a business and whatnot. Fast forward to where we are now, we are working with 40-thousand plant grow in southern California who are utilizing what we found so far as part of their integrated pest management program.
Megan Kamerick: Another crucial part of growing anything is also one of the most crucial issues in New Mexico... Water.
Andy Lyman (from interview): We’re speaking with Ryan Stoa, who is a visiting professor at the southern university law center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Stoa is also the author of the 2018 book “craft weed: family farming and the future of the marijuana industry.” Thanks for joining us today.
Ryan Stoa: Thanks for having me. It’s my pleasure.
Megan Kamerick: What do you see as a viable solution to promoting cultivation while also using water responsibly, especially in the west where so much of the land is arid?
Ryan Stoa: Well, the good news is that cannabis, as a crop and as a plant, can be grown in relatively large quantities on relatively small amount of land. A few years ago, I started seeing a lot of media publications about how much water cannabis requires. And, I think a lot of those initial reports were pretty rudimentary in terms of the research that was substantiating that claim. And yes, cannabis, especially marijuana plants, are a crop. They need water. They tend to grow very well in sunny summer locations, which means they often need large amounts of water. But relative to other crops, you can get a large yield on a small plot of land. And so, I think there is a promising role for cannabis producers, even in the west. And when I think about this question, I really think about it in terms of, when we think about cannabis production, we need to keep in mind that there are really two very different modes of production. One is indoor cultivation, which tends to take place in these large indoor warehouse type structures, often in industrially-zoned locations or around urban areas. And the other is outdoor cultivation, which of course takes place in rural or agricultural regions. And the mode of production has very different implications for water use and for water resources allocations. Indoor cultivation, if you're talking about a warehouse in an urban area, you're probably tapping into the municipal water supply, so that, you're not as concerned there about making a withdrawal from a water course, from a river or a stream, for example. Whereas outdoor cultivation, that is more of a concern. Now, you're dealing with, in New Mexico, the prior appropriation doctrine or system of water allocation, which can be a little bit more complex.
Megan Kamerick: Do we have of an industry standard of how much water is required to cultivate cannabis, because we haven't really been able to nail that down and I'm guessing it also depends on whether it's indoor cultivation or outdoor and where it is...
Ryan Stoa: Yeah, absolutely. You're picking up on a lot of the complexity that takes place in the cannabis agriculture industry. One of the major complexities that I think people understand about cannabis is that, it's easy for us to talk about it with this one big, catch-all term: cannabis or marijuana. But, really look underneath the surface and we're talking about hundreds, if not thousands of different strains of cannabis. Each one of those strains has different growing needs and ideal growing conditions. So, it's not just that the water consumption needs are different between indoor and outdoor. It's also very different in terms of which strain you're growing. It depends on your style of agriculture or cultivation. It depends on the time of the year, when in the season you are, when you're trying to harvest. So, there are so many different variables that go into how much water any one particular plant requires. I think it's really difficult to sort of nail down and say, “x” amount of gallons per day or per week. I have seen some estimates, but I can tell you that a lot of those estimates are really rough and don't take into consideration how many different variables go into cultivating cannabis and its many different forms. What I try to encourage legislatures to do at a baseline minimum is to at least think about this issue and think about water and more broadly speaking, environmental impacts when issuing their legalization laws and the rules and regulations around cannabis. A lot of states, government officials are always happy to think about taxation or public health, retail sales, maybe distribution, those types of issues. But, often the agricultural side of the industry gets ignored and people kind of forget this is a plant. This is a crop, which means this is an agricultural process. At least addressing the fact that this is agriculture and requires some attention as such, I think is a good first start.
Andy Lyman: I remember during legislative debates a few years back, proponents of legalizing hemp touted the plant as drought resistant and therefore a perfect candidate for a potential cash crop in New Mexico. Stoa says this was probably an oversimplification.
Ryan Stoa: Just like there are strains of psychoactive cannabis, there are strains of non-psychoactive hemp as well. One of the, sort of, challenges facing the hemp industry is to figure out where each strain of hemp grows best in the united states. And part of that process is thinking about soil composition, the atmosphere, temperature and water availability. But certainly, there are some hemp strains and more broadly speaking, cannabis strains in general, that are more drought resistant and show a lot of promise in that regard. I think we're still so new in this industry that we're still figuring out, you know, which strains work best in each region. 20 years down the line, we might be amazed at how drought resistant a hemp strain is in a particular region. Right now, I think we're still learning. So, there is promise in that area, but until we have a more sophisticated understanding of hemp strains and where they grow best, it's still, I would say, a developing issue.
Megan Kamerick: Which brings us back to Wylie Atherton. He agrees it all depends what strain you’re growing, what you’re growing it for and how you’re growing it. He says one of the reasons he chose to work for Seven Point Farms is because they use desert friendly techniques like drip irrigation and mulch that helps retain water.
Wylie Atherton: those are all really, really important aspects to make sure that you're not sending more water through than you need to. On the way other end of that spectrum, you have forms of production that are basically flushing water through their medium all-day long. Some of them are recycled, some of them are not. But at the end of the day, they use a tremendous amount of water compared to a sustainable or a conscientious model of production that's keeping an eye on how much water they're sending through. And so, to me, in the desert that's a really, really big deal. It's always been a big deal, but the stakes are going to get even higher as we jump into a market that just explodes in the volume of production. You know, I don't think we're going to see it in statute from the get go, just based on looking at the landscape. But, I'm hoping that in short order we can see some protections on water usage so that we're not irresponsibly using this super precious resource.
Megan Kamerick: Stoa says cannabis could prove to be a life saver to local economies crippled by the pandemic...just as long as the state and local governments put sensible regulations in place.
Ryan Stoa: Looking across the national landscape, it's really challenging for rural counties to promote rural development. And here's an industry that is one of the fastest growing in the world and in the country, and if thoughtfully regulated, can really provide some pretty enormous economic benefits, particularly for rural areas. I think that'll be something that the local governments continue to look at.
Megan Kamerick: Growing Forward is a collaboration between New Mexico PBS and New Mexico Political Report, thanks to the New Mexico Local News Fund.
Andy Lyman: Bryce Dix is the Producer and Editor of Growing Forward. Kevin McDonald is Executive Producer at New Mexico PBS and Matthew Reichbach is editor at New Mexico Political Report.
Megan Kamerick: Don’t forget to check-in with us next week when we go back to school... To address another key issue with cannabis... Educating users, growers and distributors.
Senator Jacob Candelaria: And I do think we could do a lot better as a state in making sure that those frontline workers are equipped with the knowledge and information that they need to provide that guidance to patients.
Who's Running Things
This time on Growing Forward we take a closer look at those people running the medical cannabis program, and how legalizing recreational cannabis would impact how they do business. This includes manufacturers and dispensary owners. It's a diverse group of people at the heart of this industry, and includes some surprise names. We'll also delve into other issues like plant limits and licenses and well as management companies, a fairly new approach to work within those license limits.
Podington Bear - "Good Times"
Christian Bjoerklund - "Hallon"
Blue Dot Sessions - "Building the Sled"
Kevin MacLeod - "Backed Vibes Session"
Andy Lyman: I'm Andy Lyman with New Mexico Political Report.
Megan Kamerick: And I'm Megan Kamerick with New Mexico PBS. And this is Growing Forward, a podcast about cannabis in New Mexico. This week, we'll be looking at the business side of things.
Rachael Speegle: It wasn't until I stepped into cannabis that I really started to understand the conversations that were happening around the country in the world as to how women are treated in industries. And it's been challenging and it's changed me.
Andy Lyman: There are more than two dozen cannabis production companies in New Mexico, plus a long list of manufacturers. Instead of talking to every single producer and manufacturer, we decided to talk to some of the more high-profile producers. Of course, one of the most high-profile producers is pure life. And that's because of its CEO Darren White.
♪ ♪ ("The Force" music video fades in) ♪ ♪
9/11 dispatch operator: Attention all units, respond to Central and Broadway. Reckless and large crowd. It's a war on drugs.
Megan Kamerick: Okay, so there's this 1990s video... Cops are rolling up in cruisers. They're pulling guns out. No, wait. They're pulling out a keyboard and they're singing... Andy, what is this?
Andy Lyman: Well, that's Darren White when he was a police officer with the Albuquerque Police Department. My understanding setting this up is that the Albuquerque Police Department put together a band of officers called "the force" and a very hallmark moment of the 1990s is this "just say no" campaign.
Megan Kamerick: So, White made a reputation for himself as staunchly against legalization. He would go on to become the state's public safety secretary under then Governor Gary Johnson.
Andy Lyman: He eventually resigned from that position publicly denouncing Johnson stance on cannabis legalization and decriminalization. White remained in the headlines for several years as he went on to become the Bernalillo County Sheriff, ran for us senate and eventually became the head of public safety in Albuquerque under then Mayor Richard Berry. He faced scrutiny when his wife was involved in a car crash and white showed up on the scene to take her to the hospital before officers had a chance to speak with her.
Megan Kamerick: He found himself under more scrutiny about five years ago, when it was revealed the former law enforcement officer with a hard-nosed view on drugs was the head of a medical cannabis producer.
Andy Lyman: There are still plenty of people who are critical of White, but now he speaks openly about his 180 on cannabis.
Darren White: For me, I left law enforcement in 2011. And I opened up a security consulting business. While I was doing that I was confronted by a few friends that I know. They asked me if I would do the security aspect of an application. And I said sure. I look at it and also kind of in the same time, Andy, I've been struggling with chronic pain. And I've been on a chronic pain management system for – it's going on 20 years now. I've had back surgery, I've had extensive work done on my knee over the last 30 some years, and I just actually had it replaced. I had a couple of difficult times with it. And I started using a cream that a friend gave me. I was very skeptical of it. I didn't want to do it at first. But you know, the only alternative for somebody like me was opioids. I mean, that's really all it was. And so, I tried it. And it worked. [laughs] It worked. It helped me a lot. But I didn't want to do it that way. I wanted to get a card and I did. I went in. I got a card and I became a patient. And I started using it that way.
Andy Lyman: So, obviously, you know, like many your views have shifted on this. What kind of insights can you share with people that might be a little bit iffy on this whole program?
Darren White: You know, look, I had a lot of friends over the years that you know, use cannabis. We all do. It'd be ridiculous to suggest otherwise. I had a responsibility to uphold the law. And I did. And I was always, when I heard that whole debate about medical cannabis, I was always very skeptical of that as well. And obviously the eye-opening experience for me was when it worked, and then realizing I was wrong. I was just wrong about it. It really does help a lot of people and their quality of life. You know, it's funny, Andy you say it because it's like, nobody gave a damn about the fact that I was prescribed opioids. Nobody cared. I mean, you know, I could have gotten as much as I wanted for as bad as my injuries are. And it's a hell of a lot more dangerous taking a cocktail of these painkillers, than it is smoking some weed.
Megan Kamerick: You, as you say, were in law enforcement for a long time. How do you think that our previous harsher drug laws and enforcement of them hurt the community? What did you see in that?
Darren White: Well, you know, Megan, that's interesting because I hate to say this, I'm old enough to remember, when I started in Houston, I was in the middle of that crack war. And it was devastating some of those communities. And being somebody that's been an elected official too, I get it. We overreact to everything we do. But, I also know they were plagued with, they saw people were dying, they needed to do something, and they went too far. The thing that we haven't done in this country, and we need to do right now, is we need to start treating people who come into our system, regardless of what it is. There isn't a prison cell, there isn't a jail cell in this country, regardless of what the drug is, that will shake their addiction. We better start coming to an understanding of that. When I hear, you know, I know lawmakers don't like to earmark and do set asides. But if we do a recreational model, I fully support that we look at using some of that money for treatment options for people, because they come out some of them, oh, my god, some of them, they never even skip a beat. The drugs are just as plentiful in some of our jails, and prisons, as they are on the streets. So, we need to do a better job. And that's what we didn't do. We just thought we could lock people up, and then kick them back out on the streets and go, “sure that'll work. Right?” No, that's poke and hope. That's just like going well, “we hope it works.” And then we're all surprised when recidivism rates are 75%. Because we put them right back into the same environment, most of the time hooked on the same drugs they were using when they got arrested, but we didn't provide them any way to free themselves from it. And you know, for my republican friends, if that makes me sound like, you know, some wild eyed liberal. Fine. But, look around, you know, we made mistakes. We went way too far with some of the sentencing. The hardest part of it was, we’ve never had been committed to treatment in this country ever. We just haven't.
Megan Kamerick: I just had one more question. While we were talking. I was curious, like, you guys have storefronts in your company? So, let's say we pass legalization like, what does that look like? Then you have a medical section? Or is it all together?
Darren White: You know, there's been a lot of discussion about that. Do we have different sides? We've talked about it. We have from the standpoint of being very committed to preserving the medical program, we feel that there is a way that we can either do it on separate sides of the building, whatever it takes, making sure there are set asides, looking at some of those THC levels. But yeah, we don't see a problem. We've looked at a lot of different scenarios. I think it was Colorado, Megan, that said, they actually haven't divided there's a counter for medical and a counter for recreational. And I don't think the bills have specifically said that we had to do that. But we're prepared to do it. I think what everybody in the medical program is committed to is preserving this program, and doing whatever it takes to make sure that that happens.
Andy Lyman: I think it's worth noting that even though Darren White is pretty open about his previous views and why they changed, there's still plenty of people who look at Darren and pure life with a pretty cynical lens.
Megan Kamerick: Yeah, I guess it's probably hard for some people to see his view change as anything but money driven, which probably makes him somewhat of a controversial figure in the cannabis community.
Andy Lyman: Right. And we can't talk about controversial people without bringing up this guy.
Duke Rodriguez: New Mexico may have had an early start in adopting the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act. New Mexico had the opportunity to probably be a leader in this country when it comes to cannabis science. When it comes to cannabis medicine, when it comes to cannabis industry in total.
Andy Lyman: That's Duke Rodriguez, President and CEO of cannabis producer Ultra Health. Rodriguez is also a former human services secretary of New Mexico.
Duke Rodriguez: And I served under Governor Gary Johnson. One of the things that Gary was most known for is, he actually advocated before Colorado adopted legalization, that New Mexico should consider it. I think, had Gary been successful, Today you would see New Mexico being far more the powerhouse in the southwest, probably benefiting the experience you saw happened in Denver and Colorado in general, and probably surpassing Arizona in cannabis. But we dropped the ball again. And so, we kind of lag.
Megan Kamerick: We definitely heard Duke's name a lot while doing interviews for this podcast.
Andy Lyman: Yeah, he's really made a name for himself in the industry here in New Mexico. There's a long list of court cases that Ultra Health filed against the state in the past several years. But a lot of those cases resulted in some big changes to the state's medical cannabis program. One notable change was a big increase in how many plants producers can have at any given time.
Megan Kamerick: So how many are they allowed to have now?
Andy Lyman: The state allows producers to have up to 1750 plants. There are some specifics about mature plants versus seedlings, but for simplicity sake, it's 1750. But up until last year, that number was 450. And that change came after a judge's ruling in response to a petition filed by Ultra Health. And actually, Rodriguez said even that new plant cap for producers is not enough.
Duke Rodriguez: I think plant caps, and the attempt to allocate plants, is an archaic system that most states have walked away from. There is no plant count in Arizona. There is no plant count in Nevada. There is no plant count in Oklahoma. There essentially is no plant count in Colorado. So, for all surrounding states, and probably most of the country that have medical systems or adult use programs, there is no such thing as a plant cap. The plant cap in New Mexico is an item of the past, primarily tied to the Susana Martinez administration, of believing that this was illicit drug dealing somehow become legal. Remember, we had a former governor in New Mexico who campaigned on the belief that she would eliminate the medical cannabis program. So, it's steeped very deeply within even the current operators within the department of health. They're former Martinez appointees. So, it's hard to kind of break that historical bond to believing that there's some value, some sort of harm reduction, by keeping a plant cap. But if you look at, logically, other states, plant caps don’t exist. We allow a certain level of capitalism. If you have the resources to build a bigger greenhouse than Ultra Health, we don't object to it. We don't think that small producers should be limited to their hopes and dreams, we don't think large producers, everyone should compete with whatever the investment they want to make in this industry. So, a plant cap does nothing else and try to level the playing field. But in fact, what it does is limits the playing field and it actually costs patients more. So, in the end, to us, no plant cap. If you want a plant cap because it makes you feel like you're going to have a limit, and no one's going to grow a gazillion plants, which is never going to happen, you're never going to grow more plants than what you can offer to grow and support the market with. Why would you throw resources, water people, buildings at something that's never going to be sold? There is a natural ceiling. But rather than have bureaucrats determine what that ceiling is, let the marketplace, let the consumer decide what that ceiling should be.
Megan Kamerick: Andy, in a story you wrote earlier this year, you referred to Rodriguez as a perpetual thorn in the side of the Department of Health.
Andy Lyman: Yeah, he arguably is, there seems to be an ongoing fundamental disagreement between the department and Ultra Health. Here's Dominick Zurlo, the director of the medical cannabis program explaining the department's reasoning for the current plant cap.
Dominick Zurlo: So basically, what happened was, there had been some controversy over the last several years, about there not being enough product for patients, so there not being enough medical cannabis available. And so, what ended up happening is there was a lawsuit that occurred, and on the basis of that what the department had done, had done an emergency order emergency regulation, rather, that essentially put the plant limits temporarily at 2500 plants per producer. Now that plant count was just done as a stopgap measure. In the meantime, what happened is the department contracted to do a study to see what the needs of patients were with regard to adequate supply. And on the basis of the results of that study with what producers were growing, and what patients needed in order to meet that supply, that adequate supply level, was it was determined that having a 1750 plant count was going to meet those needs plus allow for the additional growth as the program continues to grow, which the program has continued to grow with regard to patient count. That's really where that 1750 came from. It does also take into account the fact that patients can apply for their own license, for a personal production license, to grow their own medication. And we work a lot with patients who are trying to do that process, who are trying to apply, and those numbers continue to also increase. And so, I'm actually very proud of the fact that we've not only been able to increase the plant count, we've been able to offer better services towards patients with regard to their application process. And we've definitely increased how much supply is actually out in the community.
Megan Kamerick: Andy, I can't help but wonder if this whole industry is just a big boys club.
Andy Lyman: I think that's a fair assessment. There are women in the industry but they don't always make the headlines.
Rachael Speegle: As a woman, it's been challenging. I never experienced misogyny and sexism and prejudice until I entered this industry. I was a mountaineer and a rock climber in an all-male environment. I was a skydiver, worked in health care, worked for FDNY as a paramedic in New York.
Megan Kamerick: That's Rachael Speegle, the CEO of the cannabis producer, the Verdes Foundation.
Rachael Speegle: It wasn't until I stepped into cannabis, that I really started to understand the conversations that were happening around the country and the world, as to how women are treated in industries. It's been challenging, and it is, it's changed me, it's changed me so much that now I'm working on finding my authentic self again, and what it means to be feminine and be strong as a feminine leader in a very masculine environment. And I think women are particularly valuable when it comes to social responsibility. We are good business leaders when it comes to creating equitable jobs and understanding what it means to create an environment for our employees that is about the whole person and really takes into account a work life balance that's sustainable. So, I think we're good for business. And I think we're really good for an emerging industry like cannabis that has come from prohibition. I look forward to continuing to be part of a voice of positive change.
Megan Kamerick: I just was curious if you could say a little bit more about, you know, the kind of misogyny that you encountered entering the industry and kind of what that looked like.
Rachael Speegle: It's complimenting me for being a bitch, challenging environments. It's, it's judging me for being a bitch, and using you know, that language very casually. And again, on both sides as a compliment and as a criticism. Having men think that they need to stand next to me during my presentations to our association. Having individuals comment on my physical looks constantly, and proposition me sexually. It's everything. It's all encompassing.
Andy Lyman: And just to reiterate, we did not attempt to speak with the owners or principles of every cannabis-based company in New Mexico. But we did chat with Ben Lewinger, the director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce.
Ben Lewinger: New Mexico benefits from being very diverse and kind of looking like what a lot of the rest of the country is going to look like in 20 years. Unfortunately, that's not represented across the cannabis industry. The chamber has really espoused and, and at every point made an effort to make the cannabis industry one that is accessible for everyday New Mexicans, it's accessible for everybody across the state. There are some lessons there for what other states have done correctly and what other states have not done correctly. If you look at California, where they wrote into statute that people of color, women of color, were going to have funding set aside for them to start their cannabis business, it was a huge failure. The funding never happened. So, what you have is groups of people who were expecting and relying on these supports, who were then left out to dry even more so than before. New Mexico in general, across industries, does a good job of having the industry represent what the state looks like as a whole and I would be lying if I, if I said that cannabis didn't have a way to go. That's one of the key focuses of the chamber is to making sure that the industry reflects and signals back to what the state looks like.
Megan Kamerick: But there's still one major roadblock to diversity in this industry, which is that it's basically impossible to get a production license right now. Here's medical cannabis program director, Dominick Zurlo, again.
Dominick Zurlo: So, right now the state is not actually issuing additional licenses. There is not a cap per se, but it is a process, not quite an RFP or a request for proposal process, but very similar, where when the licensures do get opened up, what happens is the applicants apply. They have to complete their forms, they have to submit all the documents that are required, such as background checks for employees, their plans and procedures and policies of how they're going to keep the patient safe when the patients come into a dispensary, for example. How they're going to keep the medication safe, when it's being grown, manufactured. All of those types of things, they have to submit those and then they're reviewed. And then out of that process, those that have the highest scores essentially, or have the best proposals, are the ones that will end up getting licensed. But part of that will also depend on the projections of how the program is growing, what the needs of the patients will be. And so, at this point right now, with the new plant counts, we are seeing enough of a supply. And so, at this point, we haven't opened those particular licenses. Now with that said, there are other areas of the industry, it's not all just about the cultivation and production. There's also manufacturing where organizations and companies are turning around and taking the cannabis and creating the variety of products that patients need and want. Those manufacturing licenses are open. So, manufacturers can apply or individuals who want to be manufacturers. The laboratory licensure is also open. So, organizations and labs that want to be doing the testing that we have coming up can also apply for it. We also opened up the courier applications, which has been extremely important during the covid-19 situation, because that really allows for there to be even less interaction between the patient and then other people, because instead of having to go to a dispensary, they can actually have it delivered to their home. And we've always had couriers, but we also with this current situation said we need to increase that. And so, we have.
Andy Lyman: This is probably a good time to mention that while people could potentially get a manufacturer's license, that is a company who makes extracts and edibles, the law does not allow manufacturers to grow their own cannabis. Which means manufacturers who do not have a license to grow can only get plant material from producers. And Duke told us he's actually in favor of the program opening up more licenses.
Duke Rodriguez: In New Mexico, there's been an active debate about more licenses. It might surprise folks that we actually strongly support more licenses being issued. If some New Mexican wants to be in, as you call, the industry. And you want to participate on a lower scale, and be more what we call "craft" cannabis, I think there's a place for you. The problem is New Mexico sets such a high price tag for those plants. If you subscribe to 1750 plants, that fee is 180,000. If you even try to stay less than 500 plants, that alone is 45-50,000. So, the numbers are important, because I don't think a lot of mom and pop operators out there can afford not to pay 40,50 or 180,000 one time, it's every year. And that kind of fee is unheard of when it comes to if you decided to open up a restaurant, or an animal grooming, pet grooming kind of facility, the fees to get into this industry are extremely high and extremely prohibitive. So, it's not only just the number of licenses, it's the regulatory environment that we've created to allow people to participate in this industry.
Andy Lyman: And so, there's also a kind of a workaround for management companies, right, somebody that holds we talked to Dominick Zurlo, about this that a management company can hold more than one license essentially. And so, can you explain how that is sort of a workaround?
Duke Rodriguez: Rather than being more open, and allowing to those to take on the amount of challenge they want, the number of plants and number of locations, we become restrictive. And so, we've created this workaround, as you called it, which is probably the proper term. You have to find a, I hate to call it this a weak, colleague, a weak, brother in this industry, a weak sister, and you've got to approach them and you've got to offer them a package to say “clearly, you desire to be in this industry, you don't have the resources to be in the industry, I will bear the risk. I will grow for you. I will open locations for you. And I will hire the people and put out the capital so that you can be more successful.” And so, these smaller operators are almost caught up in a position of having to lend, lease, loan, kind of offer their licenses to someone else to stretch those licenses out. The operator who acquires them needs the plants, needs the ability to support their growing operation. And so, they kind of have to enter into some relationship. Probably not the most efficient way to expand an industry but pretty much the only way we're allowed to kind of stretch the limits of what we have today.
Andy Lyman: I'll try and add some context here. Part of the original Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act mandated that medical cannabis producers had to be a nonprofit entity. The term is licensed nonprofit producer or LNPP for short. A few years back a handful of these LNPPs figured out that you could start a management company to oversee multiple LNPPs. So, what Duke’s talking about is essentially when a producer gives up their license, either voluntarily or by the department of health, there's often a management company ready to take over that license.
Megan Kamerick: That means one management company could possibly have more than one license?
Andy Lyman: Yeah, and it's become pretty commonplace and widely accepted by the department of health. Beyond that there seemed to be some concerns that some of these larger companies, specifically the management companies, may have an unfair advantage in a post legalization world.
Megan Kamerick: Here's Dominick Zurlo with the medical cannabis program again.
Dominick Zurlo: The producers themselves can only have one license, but a management company could potentially have more than one that is based on the license and we currently do have 34 licenses that are active. You do have those different producers can actually grow up to however many plants that they've requested in their licensing each year. Now we're about to hit the re-licensing period, which happens this summer. And so, we do anticipate that the number of plants that producers are growing and that their license for it will increase.
Megan Kamerick: Growing Forward is the collaboration between New Mexico PBS and New Mexico Political Report, thanks to a grant from the New Mexico Local News Fund.
Andy Lyman: Our producers are Kevin McDonald and Bryce Dix. Our music is from Poddington bear and Christian Bjoerklund. Join us next week when we take a step back to look at what we know about the cannabis plant and its effects.
Wylie Atherton: Discerning cannabis is an art form that's been relegated to small, cloistered groups of people who really, really loved the plant really loved consuming it and taking all elements apart.
Megan Kamerick: Be sure to subscribe to growing forward wherever you get your podcasts. You can also get caught up on all of the episodes so far by heading to nmpbs.org and searching for "Growing Forward."
The Dynamics of Legalization
The push for the legalization of recreational cannabis has really picked up in recent years in the New Mexico legislature. In this week's episode, we look back at those efforts to date, and the strategy behind the legislation proposed in past sessions. We talk to lawmakers and advocates about how that legislation addresses complicated issues like restorative justice, protecting the medical cannabis program, and other regulation concerns.
Ben Lewinger: There hasn’t been a state that was medical before, that went to a recreational market, that didn’t hurt the medical program. Either medicine became too expensive, driving, you know, patients to the illicit market, or the medical programs just disappeared and were completely enveloped by the recreational program.
Megan Kamerick: I’m Megan Kamerick, correspondent with New Mexico PBS, on-air host at KUNM radio and a former business reporter.
Andy Lyman: I’m Andy Lyman, reporter for New Mexico Political Report. This is Growing Forward, a collaboration project between New Mexico PBS and New Mexico Political Report, with the help of the New Mexico Local News Fund. We’re looking at the state’s current medical cannabis program and what the future might hold for recreational-use cannabis.
Megan Kamerick: Today we’ll be hearing from lawmakers who have been at the forefront of legalization efforts in New Mexico.
Andy Lyman: As a lot of listeners probably already know, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has made a point to push for full legalization since she took office in 2019. Last year she also convened a working group and tasked them with coming up with a framework for a comprehensive legalization bill.
Megan Kamerick: Clearly, that didn’t pass, otherwise we wouldn’t be here, right?
Andy Lyman: Yeah, but in the past couple years these legalization bills have been getting incrementally closer to that proverbial finish line.
Megan Kamerick: What struck me as sort of surprising, is how proponents for legalization sort of have different reasons, or different priorities in legalizing. There are purely business and economic arguments. There are also people who believe this is a matter of equity and fairness. We spoke with democratic state Representative Javier Martinez, who’s been sort of the point person for the most recent attempts at legalization. His push for legalization seems to be less about potential revenue and more about restorative justice.
Representative Javier Martinez: Yeah, you know, one of the biggest drivers and motivators for me in sponsoring and championing recreational cannabis legalization is the social justice aspect. The war on drugs has been a complete failure, not just here at the national level but at the international level. I grew up along the border with Juarez, El Paso and I've seen firsthand the violence that the drug war has created south of the border. And in my life here in the united states, I've seen the impacts of that war as well, particularly in communities of color through incarceration, criminalization, you know, stripping people of any opportunity for a better life based solely on cannabis possession convictions. So, to me, it's important that, when we work on legalizing cannabis, that social justice is at the forefront of that fight.
Andy Lyman: This is probably a good time to bring up the term marijuana. It’s not often talked about, but there is a school of thought that the term itself is rooted in racism.
Clip from movies/tv: Smoking pot’s illegal.
Clip 2 from movies/tv: Let me get a pound of your sweetest Cheebah.
Clip 3 from movies/tv: Bud is kicking in.
Representative Javier Martinez: The term marijuana has historical racial undertones, dating back to the creation of the war on drugs. It is a word in Spanish, and it was used at the time to stoke fear in mainstream white American society, that this outsider drug was coming in and messing with our kids, messing with our young people. That's where it comes from. And so, you know, you're absolutely right terminology matters. Words matter and, you know, whenever you hear me talk about this, I talk about cannabis and I flinch a little bit when i hear other people call it, call it the “m” word, you know. But, obviously people are free to use the words that they want. But in terms of this legislative process and the work that I'm doing here –the appropriate name -- you know, the one that is most closely related to its scientific term is cannabis and i believe we should be using that term.
Megan Kamerick: I asked Martinez what he envisions as an equitable recreational cannabis program for our state.
Representative Javier Martinez: What would equity would look for me, in this kind of industry, is where we can ensure that everybody has equal footing and the same starting place as this industry develops. What we've seen in other states is, you’ve had sometimes people with historical wealth, family wealth, most of the time, folks who are not from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, right? They're not African Americans. They're not Latino. They're not Native American. They’re not Mexican American. You know, they didn't grow up along the border, you know, and along a Colonia. And to me, that's, that's a problem. And we've seen that in many situations, whether it's Colorado or California or elsewhere. So, an industry where everybody gets equal footing, right? And when it comes to equity, I'm sure you've all seen that that graphic of the three kids standing over a fence trying to watch a baseball game, and you've got these boxes, right? If you're a Latino who grew up along a Colonia, whose parents were incarcerated, perhaps for cannabis-related offenses, you grew up in poverty but you tried your best and here you are – and you're 40 years old and this industry comes up and you can't participate in it because you don't have the capital to be able to afford an expensive license. But, the 40-year-old from California, Silicon Valley, moves in with his millions of dollars and gobbles up three licenses like this. That to me is an inequitable system, right? We've got to create procedures and policies within that framework to ensure that that kid who grew up poor in the Colonia has the ability to participate.
Senator Jacob Candelaria: I ask myself that question, and I've tried to come up with the clearest way to explain it…
Megan Kamerick: That’s Senator Jacob Candelaria. He’s the first openly gay man to serve in the New Mexico legislature. He’s also been just as open about being a medical cannabis patient. He, like Martinez, wants to see a bigger focus on restorative justice.
Senator Jacob Candelaria: But, it just strikes me as sort of cynical and inhumane that, we in this country have been content and actively pained on both sides of the political aisle for decades, to lock up brown, black, indigenous and other people of color, and especially the poor, for cannabis offenses for decades. And, it sort of offends me now that we are going to legalize recreationally. We're going to get rid of the criminalization. But, we're not going to do that because we recognize that the decisions we made as a country over the last decades have been racist and have had enormous effects on people of color. And i will tell you, I, as an individual legislator, am fine without legalizing recreational cannabis until we are willing and able to have that conversation and to pass the right bill. And so, I have no intent on voting for a piece of recreational legalization next session, unless it incorporates fully and embraces these very difficult issues and proposes responses. Otherwise, I plan to vote no, because there is that inherent tension between pragmatism, right, and principle. But, given all of the issues that I’ve been discussing and all of the evidence which says, right, that the war on drugs was a deliberate attempt by the federal government to imprison and incarcerate and destabilize generations of black, brown and indigenous leaders and communities, I’m going to side on the side of principle, because if not, how can we as a country say that we take racial justice seriously.
Andy Lyman: Martinez is far from the first legislator to carry a legalization bill. In 2019, there was an attempt by a group of republicans to create state-run cannabis stores. Also, technically, Representative Martinez’s bill never really made it out of its first committee. The plan, by democrats, was to have two identical bills. One in the house and one in the senate. It became clear that the plan was to push the senate version through first. Martinez confirmed that with us and said these kinds of measures generally stall in the senate. In other words, they were not concerned with swaying voters in the house as much as the senate.
Megan Kamerick: So, what was the roadblock for that senate bill?
Andy Lyman: Well, in the committee where the bill died, there were some concerns raised about the length of the bill. Remember, Gov. Lujan Grisham had asked the legislature to come up with a comprehensive bill. Which, almost by definition, means it has to cover a lot of aspects.
Representative Javier Martinez: So, the notion that these are new concepts, the notion that the bill was too long, the notion that the bill is too complicated, was simply, in my opinion, an excuse. The bill had been vetted thoroughly through the legislative process and it had been vetted thoroughly through the governor's task force which, as you may remember, started its work sometime last spring, 2019, and worked through the summer and into the fall with a wide and very diverse group of stakeholders at the table, including folks from the medical cannabis industry, patient rights advocates, law enforcement, public health professionals, and so many others. So, you know, that’s what we heard in our conversations, that the bill is just too complex and too much at one time. But, you know, I, as a legislator we deal with a lot of big bills, all the time. In fact, you know, I’ve made… my legislative career has focused on big bills, whether it's cannabis or tax reform or early childhood and the notion that a bill that is 100 pages-150 pages long is too long is laughable to me.
Andy Lyman: I just want to take a moment to add some context to what Martinez said. Indeed, since 2015 at least, there have been a number of attempts to legalize cannabis and each year, there are little tweaks made. But, for sure, the 2020 bills were almost identical to some of the attempts in 2019.
Megan Kamerick: And I asked Representative Martinez about the possibility of looking towards the promulgation of rules for some things, instead of putting it all in the bill. He pointed out that while that is a possibility, in order to protect the medical program, he included the current law...which added to the bill’s length.
Representative Javier Martinez: If you were to go through the bill with a fine-tooth comb, you'll see that a lot of that material are actually statutes that have to be referenced. So, it's not new material, right. You're going into criminal code and tax code and all kinds of different statues that you have to reference per the way that we draft legislation. So, when it comes to the substance, you're looking not at 190 pages. I mean, maybe you're looking at 100 pages, number one. Number two, i would definitely be open to looking at different aspects of the bill that might be better addressed through rule. I can tell you that there's a whole lot in the bill already that we left up to rule. So, it’s not like we're prescribing everything in the bill. But, if some of my colleagues in the legislature feel strongly about shortening the length of the bill and if there are particular aspects of it that they would like to see through rule instead of through statute, i'd be very open to that.
Andy Lyman: One thing i watched happen during the 2020 legislative session was this idea of restorative justice used as a reason not to pass the bill.
Megan Kamerick: What do you mean, Andy?
Andy Lyman: Well, remember, Representative Martinez said these legalization efforts don’t really bottom out in the house. The senate, even with a democratic majority, always seems to have a hard time getting these bills passed. One of the holdouts on legalization is senator joseph Cervantes from las cruces. Now to be clear, Cervantes has long been a supporter of decriminalizing, or lessening penalties for, cannabis. So, the senate legalization bill was heard by the senate judiciary committee, chaired by Cervantes. Cervantes seemed to take issue with the restorative justice parts. Essentially, what the bill would have done is allowed those with criminal records related to cannabis to get a chance to be involved in a legitimate, legal program.
Megan Kamerick: Representative Martinez says this doesn’t mean repeat offenders or drug kingpins like the infamous El Chapo, as Senator Cervantes claimed, would all of the sudden have access to the industry and a fat paycheck.
Representative Javier Martinez: If you look at the bill, this is really geared toward people who might have had a conviction 20 years ago when they're 18-19 years of age. And, other than that they've had a stellar, clean life, other than those mistakes in the past. So, no, El Chapo would not have been able to get a cannabis license. No career criminal would be able to get a cannabis license. This is really geared for folks who may have made a mistake in the past, to ensure that they're not shut out of something that is now poised to make some people very wealthy. And, as somebody who has experienced the violence, the grotesque violence of the war on drugs south of the border – that's not something that i think we should even joke about. Folks like El Chapo are bad people. Folks like El Chapo are the products of failed economic policies here and abroad. Our bill was never meant to do that.
Megan Kamerick: But a legalization bill is facing opposition from more than just those who morally oppose cannabis and those who are leery about people with criminal records.
Andy Lyman: Yeah, any attempt at legalization is also going to have to convince the tens of thousands of medical cannabis patients in New Mexico that their medicine won’t be compromised. Just about every state that has legalized recreational use has seen patient numbers drop.
Megan Kamerick: So, that’s because there’s recreational cannabis and they don’t have to go through a medical program… they just go get their cannabis?
Andy Lyman: Right. Prices may be higher to buy recreational-use cannabis, but you don’t have to get a certification from a doctor, you can just go in like any other store and buy your medicine.
Megan Kamerick: But people are concerned that it might cost more and so, this is an issue that is… that’s why medical patients are worried about a legalization program, because they want to have some kind of cost protection.
Andy Lyman: Right, their concern is, if the numbers go down enough, they might do away with the medical program all together and just make it full legalization.
Megan Kamerick: Martinez told us that his last bill would have protected patients in a few ways.
Representative Javier Martinez: So, our bill has three specific provisions that would do that. The first one is to keep the patient registry within DOH (Department of Health). Keep the healthcare professionals in charge of that process, number one. Number two, eliminate gross receipts taxes from medical cannabis products and treat them like we would treat other medicines. That should make it more affordable for people, particularly for those who are chronically ill and have to purchase more product. The third provision is, by using some of the excise tax revenue to create a patient subsidy program. And that one, to me, is especially important, because it helps offset the cost of medical cannabis for, number one, seniors and number two, people who are lower income. That brings a little bit more flexibility and a little bit more equity into the medical cannabis program and should allow it, I believe, to grow with time, right? One of the arguments against us, late last session, was that when you create a recreational cannabis system, that you would have a lot of patients migrate from the medical program to the recreational program. So, our response to that was, “well, let's make medical cannabis less expensive for people to ensure that they don't migrate out of that program.” And, I believe that those provisions that we have in place would accomplish that now.
Megan Kamerick: Considering those with the financial means will probably pay extra for cannabis as a trade-off for not having to go get a medical card, I asked Martinez his thoughts on people doing the opposite. That is, calling in favors with friends to get medical prices.
Representative Javier Martinez: That would be illegal, right? And, I certainly would hope that people would follow the law. You know, when I go to the store and buy a bottle of wine and I'm paying taxes on that and, i know the bottle is not worth $20 (laughs). But it's $20, right? And if i can save myself three or four bucks by buying it on the black market – I'm just not going to take that risk, you know. And my hope is that people would treat this the same.
Andy Lyman: That brings up another point, Megan. I think there might be a misconception that there is some sort of substantive difference between medical and recreational-use cannabis. Assuming New Mexico legalizes cannabis in a similar fashion as other states, I would expect producers to sell essentially the same product to both patients and recreational-use customers.
Megan Kamerick: And we heard from one producer who basically said all cannabis use is medical at some time or another.
Rachel Speegle: I think that all people are patients. I think at some point in our life, we have different types of needs. And I think that recreational programs are able to attend to a vast array of human needs. I don't differentiate public populations from patient and non-patient. I myself go in and out of the health care system at different times in my life and become a patient. And at other times I become a provider. And I think that there are responsible recreation programs that do not overtax and do not penalize human access to this plant. And I think if we can create an equitable program that continues to focus around the medicinal needs of humans, that there can be a responsible adult use program that doesn't need to segregate between patient and recreational use.
Andy Lyman: That’s Rachael Speegle, the CEO of Verdes Foundation, a New Mexico medical cannabis producer. She was one of a handful of producers who sat on governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s legalization working group.
Andy Lyman (from interview): That's actually a really interesting take. And I have heard that sort of sentiment from other people, that, the idea that we as humans sort of self- medicate on a number of different things, but that we've got this plant that's not habit-forming, generally speaking, like alcohol is, but that generally we use alcohol, a lot of other substances, that we can freely buy, to self-medicate. Is that sort of where you're coming from?
Rachael Speegle: I mean, we can dissociate in numerous ways. And it is our responsibility, as providers of this plant, to have alternatives for our clientele, to be able to provide them with resources in the community and to be a first touch for them to find alternatives to just dissociating through life. But, yeah, I really agree, Andy, that cannabis can be useful for wellness in a way that shifts from day to day and moment to moment, depending on what is thrown at us in our life, which is why every conversation within a dispensary should start with understanding the outcome that that client is looking for.
Megan Kamerick: But Speegle is not the only one contemplating this idea that all cannabis is medical cannabis. Ben Lewinger, the director of the New Mexico cannabis chamber of commerce, hinted that his group may be pushing for an expanded medical program that would look an awful lot like full legalization.
Ben Lewinger: There's a concept that the chamber has discussed and supported and worked with, but is internally called the wellness model. And the idea is, again, really recognizing the inherent medical benefit of cannabis and using that to expand the medical program. So, in the short term, you know, especially when the state is facing budget woes… and, I don't think anybody expects adult-use to replace revenue from oil and gas royalties... I think it would definitely be one thing that's part of a bigger, multifaceted strategy, to eventually diversify our budget. But i think that there's something to recognizing the inherent medical value of cannabis. And when the governor said, “we want our adult use program to be the envy of every other state,” I think that one out-of-the-box idea to immediately bring some revenue to the state, would be this wellness model, where essentially, you're opening up the medical program to everybody. So, not purchasing cannabis recreationally, but applying to be part of the program as a wellness patient. So, all those things, where they don't count as qualifying conditions, where right now the medical program, it's in statute, that it is designed to address huge medical issues, but some of the more minor or the, you know, the lesser emphasized medical issues, like stress and anxiety, those could potentially be included in the medical cannabis program as a qualifying condition called wellness. And the idea is that wellness patients would be taxed at a higher rate and then that would create a mechanism to allow the state to more quickly start to generate some revenue and could potentially be a bridge to full adult-use in New Mexico.
Megan Kamerick (from interview): if I did that as a potential cannabis patient, I have to go to my doctor and say I'm really stressed, can you just give me my card so i can go to a dispensary. Is that, kind of, the model, you’re looking at?
Ben Lewinger: I think the idea is for this particular qualifying condition is you, you wouldn't need to do that. You would be able to apply on the spot. You wouldn't have to wait a month to get your card. And then a big point of adult-use would be tourism and generating revenue from patients or consumers out-of-state. You know, part of the opportunity, and i think one of the reasons we're in this moment now is New Mexico could potentially get revenue from out-of-state purchases. So, for the wellness model to work, it would probably need to have a mechanism to allow for somebody to come across the border and purchase medicine and legally consume medicine in New Mexico. But the idea behind wellness is that it wouldn't have the same weight or the same process that you do if you have other qualifying conditions. You'd be able to, essentially get a card on the spot.
Andy Lyman: There’s one other option for legalization that we haven’t talked about yet, which is a constitutional amendment. Just to take a step back for a moment: there are a number of states that legalized recreational-use through voter referendum. In other words, the people of those states voted to legalize cannabis and bypassed the legislative process. But New Mexico law doesn’t allow for that except through a constitutional amendment.
Megan Kamerick: I think we’ve tried that a number of times, right?
Andy Lyman: Yeah, we have a lot. But it’s never actually made it to the voters. Mostly because putting an amendment to voters still requires a two-thirds vote of the legislature. Of course, one of the big questions for amendments in general, but this issue especially, is do we want this in our constitution? We asked that question of Representative Martinez as well.
Representative Javier Martinez: I don't believe the constitution is the place for cannabis legalization. Just like I don't believe the constitution is the place for a number of other issues, right? We have a legislature for a purpose. Voters elect us for a purpose, to take these hard votes and to take a position on some of these issues. So, I’m philosophically… as a lawyer, as somebody who studied constitutional law, I'm very resistant to the idea of legalizing cannabis through a constitutional amendment. I think it tells the voters that we’re either afraid or too lazy to tackle an issue as big as that. Having said that, if that is the only way in the near future that we might be able to legalize cannabis and to create a brand-new industry from which every citizen of New Mexico can benefit from, then I'd be open to it. It’s going to take longer. Assuming that we pass a constitutional amendment to legalize cannabis in 2021, it would not be on the ballot until the 2022 general election, unless we call a special election, just for this issue, which could be costly and just, cumbersome, i think. Beyond that, we would still have to deal with enabling legislation, which could either run parallel to the constitutional amendment or that we might wait until the voters approve legalization. So, now we're talking the legislative session in 2023, which to me, is a long time. By 2024, I would predict many, many other states would have legalized already. And in many ways, we would be missing out on, you know, capitalizing on a brand-new industry that we know is producing a lot of wealth for a lot of people in a lot of states.
Andy Lyman: So, it doesn’t sound like Representative Martinez will push for a constitutional amendment, but Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham indicated at the end of this year’s regular session that every option was still on the table. Just to be clear though, she didn’t explicitly say she was going to push for an amendment.
Megan Kamerick: And it sounds like other lawmakers are steering away from that option. Here’s Representative Debbie Armstrong, who is an ardent supporter of legalization and a co-sponsor of Martinez’s bill this year.
Representative Debbie Armstrong: Constitutional amendment, we still have to come up with the legislation to enact it. So, I don't know that that takes us anywhere, unless it unless it gets a significant number of votes that we wouldn't get to pass it, by taking it to the voters. But otherwise, i think that kind of slows it down and we'd still have to circle back around and create the legislative framework for implementing it. So, you know, my preference, I guess, would be to continue working on the legislation.
Andy Lyman: We saw a push for amendments during the last administration, under former Governor Susana Martinez, because she made it clear she wouldn’t sign a legalization bill.
Megan Kamerick: Now we have a governor who’s in favor of legalization, but the question remains: will there be enough votes to get the bill to Governor Lujan Grisham’s desk?
Andy Lyman: Our producers are Kevin McDonald and Bryce Dix. Music is by Podington Bear and Christian Bjoerklund. Be sure to subscribe to “growing forward” wherever you get your podcasts. And you can also get caught up on all of episodes by heading to nmpbs.org and searching for “growing forward”
Megan Kamerick: Join us next week when we dive headlong into the business aspects of legalized cannabis in New Mexico. It could have a big impact on the state budget, but there are a lot of other issues to consider.
Duke Rodriguez: So, the fees to get into this industry are extremely high and extremely prohibitive. So, it’s not only just the number of licenses, it’s the regulatory environment that we’ve created to allow people to participate in this industry.
An Abridged History of Medical Cannabis in New Mexico
The debate over medical cannabis use in New Mexico goes back to the 1970s. But it really cranked up in the 1990s, when former Governor Gary Johnson came out in support of legalization and decriminalization. It was a controversial stance at the time, but was coupled by the early stages of a push for legislation creating a medical cannabis program. That debate would last for nearly a decade, but the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act was signed into law in 2007. In this episode of "Growing Forward" we look back at that time and talk to lawmakers and advocates who worked tirelessly to create the nation's 13th medical cannabis program.
Blue Dot Sessions - "Svela Tal"
Blue Dot Sessions - "Highride"
Blue Dot Sessions - "Neon Drip"
Chad Crouch - "American Coot"
Chad Crouch - "Western Tanager"
Chad Crouch - "Wilson's Snipe"
Podington Bear - "Good Times"
Christian Bjoerklund - "Hallon"
Megan Kamerick: This is growing forward, a podcast exploring the cannabis industry in New Mexico. It's a business sector that tends to be overlooked in discussions about economic development in the state, perhaps because of lingering stereotypes about cannabis and who uses it.
Andy Lyman: But it's an industry that is growing literally and figuratively. And that growth is poised to explode. If lawmakers move to legalize it next year.
Dede Feldman: you can't do this, this will increase your drug epidemic. And, you know, that was very powerful for a little while. It became a battle between approaching this issue as one of compassion and medicine and approaching this issue as a matter of criminal justice.
Megan Kamerick: I'm Megan Kamerick, correspondent with New Mexico PBS and on-air host at KUNM radio and a former business reporter.
Andy Lyman: I'm Andy Lyman, reporter for New Mexico Political Report.
Megan Kamerick: I noticed as we had conversations about medical cannabis in the state that some people call it an industry, while others refer to it as a program.
Andy Lyman: Yeah, I noticed that too. Well, it can be viewed by many as a medical program. There's definitely elements of what you might consider an industry. One thing for listeners who may not be familiar with the program/industry to keep in mind is that producers are required by the state to be nonprofit companies.
Megan Kamerick: But this is a new world to me. I was a business reporter and editor for 14 years. That was before cannabis became a significant sector in New Mexico. I've been astonished at the scope of this industry as we've put this podcast together and intrigued by the players on it. Over the next few months. We'll introduce you to them as we explore how the cannabis industry started here and what it may look like in the coming months and years.
Andy Lyman: Today we are starting from the beginning, looking at how we got to where we are today. And that beginning was the creation of a medical cannabis program. Megan and I talked to a few people who had front row seats when the state passed what is now known as the Lynn and Erin compassionate use act. Dede Feldman was in New Mexico State Senator in 2007 when the legislature finally passed a bill approving medical cannabis. Feldman told us that the effort to convince lawmakers that cannabis could be legitimized as a form of medicine goes back to the late 70s.
Megan Kamerick: now many listeners may associate the origins of medical cannabis with our previous governor Gary Johnson, who made something of a name for himself as a libertarian pursuing fewer restrictions on the substance and the decriminalization of its use.
Andy Lyman: Right. And Feldman told us these efforts predate Johnson's term as governor.
Dede Feldman: Well, even before Gary Johnson, there was a bill in the New Mexico legislature in 1978, when a citizen by the name of Lynn Pierson, came to the legislature, he was a cancer patient. And he came at that early time to ask for a program to study the use of cannabis in alleviating suffering. And that finally passed. He died before he had a chance to take advantage of it. And then the funding ran out...
Andy Lyman: Feldman also wrote about Lynn Pierson in her book “Inside the New Mexico Senate: Boots, Suits and Citizens.” Pierson was a military veteran and cancer patient. Sort of flashing forward almost 30 years, Feldman wrote about how personal stories from Pierson and others seem to have a real impact on our colleagues, who were hesitant to say the least about legalization.
Megan Kamerick: You go into the stories they brought to the roundhouse. They're pretty powerful.
Dede Feldman: Well, not only the stories were powerful, but their physical presence was very powerful because, you know, we could see them losing weight, year by year, and yet they were making the sacrifice to come there and testify and to wait in the gallery -- you've been there, you know how frustrating it is -- to wait in the gallery to see the committee hearing canceled, [music] to find out that your bill, just as when it was supposed to pass, will not be heard on the house floor because there is a dispute between the senate sponsor and the house speaker. Their perseverance, I think was acknowledged by the fact that when the bill and finally did pass, it was named the Erin Armstrong and Essie DeBonet medical marijuana bill.
Andy Lyman: Erin Armstrong is an important name here. She was a young cancer patient, who at the time didn't even use cannabis, but saw its usefulness and helping to alleviate symptoms of a number of conditions. Her mother, Debbie Armstrong, is currently a state representative. At the time Representative Armstrong was the secretary of aging and longtime services.
Debbie Armstrong: My daughter Erin, who is named in the act, the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, is a cancer patient who was diagnosed when she was a teenager with thyroid cancer that had metastasized pretty extensively. She, from the day she was diagnosed, turned into a patient advocate. And when she was in college, she learned about the efforts to pass a medical cannabis program. I think there'd been a couple of years of trying to get it going by the time she got involved. But she became kind of a spokesperson about that, and is still quite an advocate. She worked on it for a number of years actually coming from she had moved to California coming back on her own time, as a volunteer to work on it the last few years, until it was finally passed.
Megan Kamerick: Erin was a particularly important advocate, because she upended the stereotypes many lawmakers had about who uses cannabis.
Erin Armstrong: I think I, you know, I was a young person with a lot of privilege that was able to leverage that privilege to get in front of them and disrupt those stereotypes and those notions, I was a young woman beginning my life in college, my mom at the time was the secretary of aging. And so, I think, knowing my mom also created an emotional link. And I wasn't a stranger coming forward. I even though I didn't know a lot of the legislators at the time, I think knowing that I was the daughter of someone that they worked with, and I think for the most part, respected was also useful, powerful. And I think I just was able to disrupt the narrative that they had in their own minds about who was using marijuana, who might need to use marijuana for medical reasons. And for whatever reason, I was able to tell a story that was persuasive that resonated that I think made it a little bit more personal, and made it more difficult for some of the opposition, at least to demonize me, you know, if not really hear me, I think it made it more difficult for opposition to really cast me in a certain light.
Megan Kamerick: Erin was diagnosed with cancer when she was young.
Erin Armstrong: I have been managing cancer for over 20 years now, when I was 17, I was a senior in high school at Santa Fe high living a pretty normal teenage existence. And there was a lump in my neck that had been there for many years. And we kept checking on it at the doctor's office, but kept being told it was nothing to worry about. Until we made our way, a series of events in my life prompted us to ask more questions and look a little further and get a second opinion. And it turned out that it was a cancer that is slowly growing throughout my body. And by the time we found it, it was in my lymph nodes, lungs, soft neck tissue, trachea, you know, it spread substantially.
Erin Armstrong: At 17, my life was uprooted a bit, and it's not exactly what I pictured of my late teenage years and early 20s. But that became very much a part of my identity and managing that disease became very much a part of my daily lived experience, so.
Megan Kamerick: Erin lobbied the legislature for years before lawmakers started to come around to the positive impact cannabis can have. Although she didn't even use cannabis at the time, Erin and a group of others basically forced legislators to face the types of people who found relief from things like nausea brought on by chemotherapy.
Erin Armstrong: But at that time, law enforcement was just rabid about this, though. I mean, we had president bush at the time send his white house drugs czar to our little state of New Mexico to testify against this medical marijuana bill. The sheriffs brought -- Darren White at the time was the sheriff of Bernalillo County. He and other law enforcement officers would come to all of the hearings and be quite vocal. So, if you think about someone who is frail and currently using an illegal substance to treat their symptoms, to be able to stand up in that environment and tell that story honestly is incredibly intimidating. I didn't at the time, have that fear. You know, I was able to stand up and honestly say I don't need this right now. But I know that I might. And I know what it's like to be desperate for something that works to manage symptoms when you're managing chronic illness. And so I was really happy that I was able to contribute in that way.
Andy Lyman: Some listeners probably caught a familiar name their former Sheriff Darren White's name will definitely come up again soon. But, I've witnessed firsthand a little of what Erin's talking about there. I've spent enough time watching legislative hearings in Santa Fe to know that advocating for an issue, especially a personal one, can really take its toll. Committees almost never start on time and can go late into the night. Plus, advocates waiting to speak may wait all night just to be turned away. For Erin, it was no different.
Erin Armstrong: I just found the opposition pretty inhumane, and confusing. You know, everyone knows someone who's been sick. And so, it seemed to me at the time, the opposition was certainly frustrating. At times, it was hurtful, felt deeply personal, you know, we had so many losses, before the win. So, there were a lot of tears shed over the bill by people who didn't know they could afford to wait. So, the opposition felt personal and hurtful and frustrating for sure, as it was happening. And do I hold any animosity towards anyone who has since changed their mind? Absolutely not. It didn't always even feel polite or respectful. There were some lawmakers that were really against this bill, really angry, I'm sure from a personal place in their lives. And that came across in some of our interactions. So, it was everything from disappointing to offensive and hurtful.
Andy Lyman: But, before Erin, there was Lynn Pierson. He was a Vietnam war veteran who was diagnosed with cancer and lobbied the legislature for a good 20 years before Erin started her battle with cancer and her fight with lawmakers. Pierson died in 1978.
Erin Armstrong: Yeah, unfortunately, I was never able to meet Lynn. He passed before we began this phase of the effort he passed away before even the 1970s research program was up and running. So, he never benefited from the program that he fought so hard to establish. So, we were fighting in his memory and his honor, I certainly felt sort of kinship and solidarity with him. As we were doing the work. He was not far from our thoughts, but I was never able to meet or know him.
Megan Kamerick: We also spoke to Erin about another woman who had a major impact on our current medical cannabis law.
KOB-TV Reporter 1: Medical marijuana users get another victory. One more condition has been added to the list of diseases that qualify for the state's medical marijuana program. Austin reed is here to show us how supporters celebrated the decision today. Austin?
KOB-TV Reporter 2: Hi Antoinette. Well, if you have inflammatory auto immune mediated arthritis, you can now apply for a medical marijuana card right here in New Mexico. It is just one more condition added to the list which supporters say is just another step in the right direction.
EssIe DeBonet: I have AIDS. 21 years. Been nauseous for the last 10. And it's getting worse.
Megan Kamerick: That's Essie DeBonet talking to KOB-TV back in 2010. Everyone we spoke to about Essie told us she was very influential and getting the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act passed in 2007. She was also the very first medical cannabis patient in New Mexico.
Andy Lyman: I happened to be neighbors with her sister who told me it would have been emotionally too much to talk to us about Essie. But she did offer us a written statement of sorts.
Megan Kamerick: This is what Thea Buscarello, Essie's sister sent us. Essie was a genius, she received an invitation from Mensa. And as happens with exceptional people, she was difficult. As her sister, I was in charge of every aspect of her life from her AIDS diagnosis to her death. As I remember what life was like then I also remember how difficult it was for me, and now believe she deserves better representation than I would be able to give.
Erin Armstrong: She quite literally was fighting for her life. I mean, she honestly believed, and I believe also, needed cannabis to stay alive and to manage her condition and her illness and the side effects of the drugs that she had to take. And so, she would walk into the room looking quite frail. She was very small. She was much older than I was. And I think people mistakenly thought that she was going to be sort of a soft spoken, frail presence until she started telling her story...
Andy Lyman: This is probably a good time to remind listeners that people like Erin and Essie didn't just show up to the roundhouse one year and get medical cannabis legalized.
Megan Kamerick: Yeah, Erin told us she was at this for a number of years before she saw what she called "cracks" in the armor of the opposition.
Andy Lyman: One thing that struck me was a story we heard from both Erin and her mom, Representative Debbie Armstrong, about one of the relationships Erin built with the spouse of then-state senator Tim Jennings.
Erin Armstrong: At the time that we were really working really hard to get this bill passed, senator Jennings’ wife, Patty Jennings, was also fighting her own battle with cancer. As everyone who knew her knows she was herself in her own right and incredible policy advocate, and had been advocating for years at the legislature for access to health care, access to health insurance, access to affordable insurance. And so she was a regular fixture at the roundhouse. And I was spending a lot of time at the roundhouse in those years. And so she and I met and forged a friendship and I think we're going through something similar. For both of us, we're fighting our own battles with cancer, and I think were able to relate to each other she was in incredibly kind, just such a warm, calming, kind, empowering presence for me at the legislative session, and then began to stand up and say, her own words in support of the medical marijuana bill. And I think that was incredibly powerful, because she, as I said, was in her own right an incredibly effective and known presence there, and also, was the partner of Senator Jennings. And so, she just carried enormous weights and legitimacy, had personal relationships with so many of the people taking the votes. She added something really special to the effort, and I'm forever grateful for that time with her and for the friendship that we've forged and remember her so fondly and miss her deeply.
Andy Lyman: Her mom said that relationship between Erin and Patty Jennings not only led to the act being partially named after Erin, but more armor "cracks" as well.
Debbie Armstrong: And I mentioned Patty Jennings. Patty was, particularly when legislator would say, “what are you going to do about kids in the house, and you've got cannabis in there, and it's illegal, and it's going to hurt them? And you can't have that around.” And she'd walk in, and she pulled out her big bottle of oxycontin or something, or morphine, or whatever it was. And she said, “I have kids in my house, and this could kill them. We have those conversations about what's appropriate, and what's not, and what's for my health care, and it's not just fun and games and recreation.” She said, “all of us have those conversations with our kids now, and we've got dangerous drugs in our house.” She was very, very powerful. And just want to give a shoutout to both of those brave women.
Megan Kamerick: So, the bill passes. But as Dede Feldman points out, the shift to legalize medical cannabis was, and still is, a gradual process.
Dede Feldman: Well, you can never see it coming when you're in the middle of it, although you got it, I mean, New Mexico is not an island, and the rest of the country has become far more accepting of these kind of societal, more liberal lifestyle, lifestyle changes. We're much more traditional. We're much more stuck in our own province here in New Mexico, we don't adopt the latest trend very easily. And we don't even do that when the polling data says there's overwhelming support. It just takes a lot to make a cultural change. I think it’s a similar, although not as important, clearly, as gay marriage, same sex marriage. And you know, there was so much opposition to that. And then pressure had been building. Everybody knows somebody in their family, who's gay, everybody knows somebody in their family that has had cancer, I would say. In that way, the pressure kept mounting, kept mounting, kept mounting, there was a sea change going on. The laws were not keeping up with it in any way and then [claps] boom! The dam burst. And that's what happened, I think, with a supreme court decision and same sex marriage. That didn't come out of nowhere. There had been advocacy that had been going on for 20 years. I think the same kind of thing is gonna happen with marijuana and has happened in other states. And i think nationally, it will happen as well.
Andy Lyman: I think Feldman's take on this is pretty accurate, but also poignant as we look towards the next legislative session. Let's not forget that views just in the past 10 years have changed significantly.
Megan Kamerick: It's also important to remember that New Mexico has a long and tragic history of substance abuse. Heroin was a public health emergency here long before that became more common in other parts of the country. Drunk driving rates are off the charts here for years. And yet, Feldman says there was success with other public health initiatives like harm reduction, and needle exchange programs. So, there was some initial support for medical cannabis. But then law enforcement actively opposed it. The federal drug czar even warned in New Mexico not to pursue it. Why was this opposition so effective? Should holding it up?
Dede Feldman: Well, first of all, let me just balance the scales a little bit, because before the law enforcement entered, entered the picture in the legislature anyway, you had a very progressive department of health. The first year I came to the legislature was 1997. And that was a year I was proud of in terms of public health. Because that year, we passed what is called a harm reduction bill. And a harm reduction bill sometimes is called allowing for needle exchange. You know, this is about drug use. And New Mexico has had a very bad history of heroin addiction, especially in northern New Mexico. It was rampant. At the time we were debating medical marijuana during the late 90s, and the early aughts, I guess you would say, the department of health had a progressive view toward it, which is “we can't stamp this out, we're not going to be able to stamp it out. The best we can do is to prevent people from getting hepatitis c by exchanging dirty needles.” And that was a halfway measure. It's an incremental step. But it's sort of interesting to me that that we enjoyed widespread support amongst the legislature, and also the department of health, which was under a republican administration. But at that time was, the secretary was Alex Valdez, who later became the head of St. Vincent's, or I guess it's called Cristus St. Vincent's now. He got it, the Department of Health had a strong public health orientation. That set the floor under which all of these medical marijuana proposals became proposals in the legislature from around 2000 to its final passage in 2007. You would have the department of health on the one side, and then you would have the criminal justice folks from the federal agencies, at that time was president bush, that came to New Mexico to testify and say, “this is against federal law, you can do this, this will increase your drug epidemic.” You know, that was very powerful for a little while. But then finally, I mean, as time went on, it became a battle between approaching this issue as one of compassion and medicine, and approaching this issue as a matter of criminal justice. Legislators want to believe that they can alleviate suffering, and they want to respond to the personal stories that they heard of people who had cancer, or who had aids, and said that, you know, marijuana alleviated their suffering. Didn't cure anything, but alleviated their suffering. The drugs czars that came in to testify before the judiciary committees kind of overplayed their hand, because they then began to criticize the people like Erin Armstrong, Essie DeBonet, who both of them were ravaged by disease, but they kept coming back to the legislature year after year asking for that. And then the drugs czars came in. And they said these people are being used these people don't know what they're talking about.
Megan Kamerick: We mentioned before that Erin Armstrong was not a medical cannabis patient while she was pushing for the law change. But now, after a pretty bad turn, health wise, she decided to start using it.
Erin Armstrong: Like I said in late 2018, my own diagnosis took a turn and I'm now dealing with a much more aggressive cancer and a whole set of side effects and symptoms that I am now managing for the first time. And so, I did get my card, which was a cool experience. You know, it was it felt really, I felt really proud to get that card and to revisit memories related to this effort and reflect on how many people have benefited since and now be one of them. It feels like full circle in a bittersweet way. For me, I found it helpful and, and to be honest, I'm still learning. You know, I still feel like I'm sure it could do even more for me that I haven't discovered yet. But, so far I've used it to manage nausea, to stimulate some appetite. At times when you know, after my first -- I've had three craniotomies in the last year and a half, and after, after each one, I've lost an incredible amount of weight, I mean, just wasted in a matter of weeks. I’ve, you know, 20-30 pounds.
Erin Armstrong: So, getting my weight back on has been important and so I used it to try to stimulate appetite, used to try to manage nausea when I've been experiencing that. I've also used it to try to help as a sleep aid, as a mild sleep aid not wanting to take drugs that create more side effects of serious grogginess and things too, but also really struggling to sleep but either because of fear that I was struggling with or the side effects of medications that wouldn't allow me to sleep.
Megan Kamerick: So, that brings us to the current situation here in New Mexico, there are plenty of questions and hurdles to overcome if our state is going to legalize cannabis. We'll be diving into those issues in the coming weeks here on the podcast. Thank you to everyone we spoke with and a special thanks to Erin Armstrong for sharing her personal journey. By the way, you probably noticed that people used "cannabis" and "marijuana" when talking about this plant. But we made a very deliberate decision to use the word "cannabis." and that was another thing I learned is that "marijuana" is a word with a lot of problematic historical baggage.
Andy Lyman: And that's something you'll hear more about in the next episode.
Javier Martinez: What equity would look for me is where we can ensure that everybody has equal footing and the same starting place as this industry develops. What we've seen in other states is you've had folks who are not from communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs, right? They're not African American. They're not Latino, they're not Native American. They're not mixed American and to me, that's a problem.
Andy Lyman: Growing Forward as a partnership between New Mexico PBS and New Mexico Political Report, thanks to a grant from the New Mexico Local News Fund.
Megan Kamerick: Thank you to our producers Kevin McDonald and Bryce Dix. Our music is composed by Poddington Bear and Christian Bjoerklund. Be sure to subscribe to Growing Forward today wherever you get your podcasts. You can also catch up on past episodes by heading to NMPBS.org and searching for "Growing Forward." Join us next week to hear about the dynamics of legalization.
Growing Forward Season 1 Preview Episode
"Growing Forward" is a podcast dedicated to covering the cannabis industry in New Mexico. Right now that only includes the medical program, but lawmakers are inching closer to legalizing recreational cannabis as well. Before we dive into all the intricacies and nuances of legalization, we wanted to take a step back and give you the history of how we got to this place and time. Hosts Andy Lyman of the NM Political Report and Megan Kamerick, Correspondent at NMPBS and on-air host at KUNM discuss the start of the medical program in New Mexico, and what happened with recent attempts to pass legalization legislation in the Roundhouse. Be sure to subscribe to "Growing Forward" today and listen in next week (September 29) as we officially premiere episode 1 of season 1.
Jacob Candelaria: As a person of color, I have a problem with justifying cannabis recreational legalization now because it makes good financial sense, but sort of ignoring the trauma that’s been inflicted on communities of color for the last 50-60 years.
Dede Feldman: This is a cultural change. I think it’s similar, although not as important, as gay marriage.
Ryan Stoa: Here’s an industry that is one of the fastest growing in the world and in the country and, if thoughtfully regulated, can really provide some pretty enormous economic benefits, particularly for rural areas.
Darren White: And we’ve talked so much about diversifying our economy. Well, here’s an opportunity for us. I’ve seen a lot of different projections, a lot of different models, but you could easily be talking one hundred, two hundred million dollars in additional revenue for the state. More, possibly…
Megan Kamerick: Welcome to growing forward, a podcast exploring the cannabis industry in New Mexico. I’m Megan Kamerick, correspondent for New Mexico PBS, a host at KUNM, and a former business reporter.
Andy Lyman: And I’m Andy Lyman, reporter for New Mexico Political Report. I’ve spent years covering the medical cannabis program here in New Mexico, decriminalization efforts, and past attempts to legalize the drug for recreational purposes. We are starting this podcast because we know the debate over legalization will definitely be front and center in next year’s legislative session.
Megan Kamerick: that is true, especially when you consider the possibility of a new revenue source for the state, which is now in economic crisis thanks to the covid-19 outbreak. This week, we want to lay out our plans for this season and preview some of the topics we’ll cover and the people we’ll introduce you to. Andy, discussions about medical use of cannabis has been going on since the 1970s at least. And yet, nearly 50 years later, there seems to be a lot of confusion about the drug, it’s medical benefits, and what happens if it is legalized for recreational use?
Andy Lyman: There’s a lot of moving pieces to try to keep straight on this. You’re right. There’s the current medical program and there’s questions over what that program should be doing now, what it should be doing in the future, the interplay between the medical program and the potential recreational program going forward. I think legislation is going to have to address some of these issues, or rulemaking. There’s a lot of questions over who is going to be in charge of this recreational program, whether the department of health will remain in charge of the medical program? There’s lot of stuff to talk about.
Megan Kamerick: Yeah, I was a business reporter for fourteen years. Eight of those in New Mexico. I covered a lot of different industries. I have to say, I never reported on one that was in such a strange, gray area, between being illegal, being a medicine and potentially a whole new way to bring revenue to a state that currently relies on just a few key sectors to fund its budget.
Dede Feldman: revenue-wise, in 2020, during the session, the legislature felt that the state was flush and had plenty of revenue. But next time, going into the session, I think there’s going to be a real feeling that, you know, we need those 11,000 jobs that this industry could create.
Andy Lyman: I’m a reporter with New Mexico political report and I’ve been covering this issue since about 2015. Some of the things I’ve seen change over the years is just the governor’s viewpoint on this. In 2015 the governor was Susana Martinez. In 2010, when she ran for governor, she said she was going to do away with program. And, she sort of walked that back a little bit, but it was a very hands-off approach from her department of health. It became sort of the wild west, as we’ve heard from some of our guests.
Megan Kamerick: because there was really no oversight, or there wasn’t aggressive oversight. It was just kind of a hands off… “we don’t really want to go forward. We don’t really want to roll it back. Let’s just ignore it.” (laughs)
Andy Lyman: Right. There were a lot of question about how do we regulate things, and even now, what you and I have learned is that there is still a sort of hands-off approach from the department of health when it comes to things like security, testing. They are regulating testing and labeling, but when it comes to how those businesses run as a business, the department of health sort of says, “that’s not our job to do anything about that.” And there become some complications there, where it’s just department of health overseeing this. And tax and revenue, the environment department, these departments don’t really have any say in how this business goes, what sort of products people are able to buy, how they’re using it. So, it is sort of confusing and so, hopefully, we can work through that a little bit.
Megan Kamerick: That’s what I realized when you and I started talking. There’s just so much to this industry. There’s so many elements and the fact that an industry that has that many, sort of subsectors, isn’t being regulated the way another industry would be (laughs) by these agencies. What is going on here? So, there’s so much to cover this season. We plan to start by catching everyone up on how we got to this place in time where we appear to be on the cusp of legalizing recreational use of cannabis. But andy, it really all started decades ago with the fight for medical cannabis, right?
Andy Lyman: Yeah, that’s right. Everyone remembers Gary Johnson, former governor Gary Johnson. He got a lot of flack in his second term for wanting to legalize this completely. But, it goes before him. In the late 70s, Lynn Pierson was one of the people we’ll talk about in a subsequent episode. He was a veteran, Vietnam vet, who was really lobbying to make this a legitimate medicine for his cancer diagnosis. So, we see waves of this from 1978 to about now, where it, sort of, pops up into our purview. But, like you said, it goes back a few decades where Lynn Pierson was pushing for this cannabis to be a legitimate medicine for his cancer and then we saw some movement around the Gary Johnson administration. Then, under Bill Richardson, there was a real, real big push to legalize this as a medicine. And, we’ll hear from Erin Armstrong, who was, Lynn and Erin… they’re both namesakes of the Lynn and Erin compassionate use act.
Erin Armstrong: I first discovered the conversation that was happening in the efforts that were underway through a friend who was interning, actually, at the drug policy alliance and was sharing with me some of the stories that they were starting to hear from patients who were desperate to be able to use this medicine. And, it just really struck a chord with me, you know? I was in the early years of my own fight. I was, very much, still learning how to manage symptoms and manage, sort of, the preparation and aftermath of radiation treatment. It really struck a chord with me. These stories really resonated in a really deep way. I was really moved to get involved, and beyond that, what I saw was patients who were incredibly frail, incredibly sick, some of them elderly, having to risk a lot to tell their stories, when they were needing to be actively using marijuana for medical purposes, but without the cover of the law.
Megan Kamerick: So, we’ll be talking to some of the major players who have already staked out a big chunk of this industry. But, we’ll also meet some up and coming entrepreneurs who are finding their own niches in building cannabis-based businesses. And there are so many of them. There’s so many permutations to how people are involved in this business, which I thought was just fascinating. We’ll hear from current and former lawmakers who talk about the policy implications of how we legalize. It’s not dissimilar to many other industries: how will it be regulated? Who will benefit? Who will be the innovators? But it is different (laughs) because there’s this whole history of communities who bore the burden of this plant being illegal. And so, when it comes to being no longer illegal, there’s a whole question of who gets to benefit?
Andy Lyman: Yeah, so the idea is, we’re going to have these discussions now, leading up to the next legislative session in January and February. They’re going to take this issue up. The governor has said she is really pushing for legalization. Of course, a lot of that has sort of been buried in current events, but it’s almost definitely going to be an issue in this next legislative session. So, we’re going to have some better ideas of the nuances leading into the session, hopefully. There’s issues of race. There’s issues of representation. There’s issues of who is really running the show in these organizations. And, what we’ll hear later is, there is at least one person who was staunchly against legalization who is clearly in the business now.
Megan Kamerick: Yes. That was one of the more interesting interviews (laughs). There are some people we talked to… there was a big push in the last session, which you covered. And, some of the folks that we talked to felt that that last attempt was way too complicated. We had this huge bill, it was something like 200 pages, I think? It laid out a lot of policy initiatives and how they’d be implemented. Those included efforts to address some of those inequalities that I mentioned, that fell on low-income communities, people of color, during the war on drugs. It also included a detailed regulatory structure, which, as we just mentioned isn’t really in existence right now. But, some of the cannabis business owners, who are quite successful, who are pushing for legalization, argued that the bill was just too complex. And, they felt like that doomed it and that kind of detail should be left up to the rulemaking process. But, there are others who say, “no, these details are really important. They need to be codified in the bill, to make sure there is equity in the industry.”
Representative Javier Martinez: So, the notion that these are new concepts, the notion the bill was too long, the notion that the bill was too complicated was simply, in my opinion, an excuse. The bill had been vetted, thoroughly, through the legislative process and it had been vetted thoroughly through the governor’s task force, which, as you may remember, started its work sometime last spring, 2019, and worked through the summer into the fall with a wide and very diverse group of stakeholders at the table, including folks from the medical cannabis industry, patients’ rights advocates, law enforcement, public health professionals, and so many others.
Megan Kamerick: So, these are kind of the competing forces that we heard while we were talking to people.
Andy Lyman: Yeah. There’s an element of legislation in general, in this. That’s sort of a conversation that I see happening a lot, is, is this bill too long? Just in general, about anything. Is this bill too long? Are we covering too many specifics? Anybody that follows legislation from point a, literally to the end, point Z, I guess you would say, is, how narrow do you go into something? Because the narrower you get in on an issue, you’re bound to overlook something. You’re bound to not address the one thing and we’ve seen over the years, countless legislation questioned by courts. “what did they mean by this? What did they mean by that?” So, there’s a school of thought that if you make a general framework and then you can, like you mentioned, allow the regulatory department, whatever that department is, to come up with rules and specify this is… and we do have a little of that in department of health right now. But, then there’s debate of, “well, they’re going against the law by doing this rulemaking procedure.” There was a lot of debate over how long the bill was, or bills. There were two bills. And, I think one of the arguments for making a longer bill is that they have to address the medical law, right now, in whatever draft they come up with, which adds pages. Then there’s the question of, “do we trust whatever regulatory department is going to address these issues?” Race, equality, all of these things that we’re going to get in to. And so, we’ve already done a lot of work getting all this information for the listeners. We’re really excited to share it with you all. But Megan, before we wrap up, is there anything that you wanted to share the question, some of the questions you had going in to this?
Megan Kamerick: When you were talking about the bill process. So, again, you’ve got this kind of unique industry where it’s about health issues, it’s about agriculture issues, it’s about regulation and licensing, it’s about criminal issues in the past. If it’s no longer going to be illegal, what does that mean for people who had a criminal past that was based on using or selling this plant. So, I think I was a little shocked, as you and I started talking, at how nascent the business is here, how new, in the sense that right now, as you said, the department of health is pretty much the agency in charge of overseeing the industry. That’s because we have a medical program. But, it’s also an agriculture industry. It’s a retail industry. It’s a controlled substance. So, this does risk invoking a cliché. You brought it up before… it really is kind of the wild west right now. And, I guess I didn’t pay attention when I was a business reporter, or over these last few years, just those details. And, you’ve covered a lot of that (laughs). People we interviewed would be talking, you would tell me stuff. I’d be, like, “Wait. Go back. I don’t understand.” (laughs) and so, I... I guess I just thought it would be a little more developed in terms of a regulatory framework than it is, in terms of water usage and controlling that. So, I see a lot of potential pitfalls right now, if we don’t get this right, if we do legalize. But, I also see a lot of potential for innovation and we found that’s already happening. And, I thought that was really interesting. Entrepreneurs are always innovative, interesting people to talk to, so those are kinds of the things that struck me as we worked on this over the last few months. What about you, Andy?
Andy Lyman: Everything you just said is exactly what I’ve been sort of having to deal with in the last five years. Obviously, my lens on this is the political nature of things and so I haven’t covered the business aspect of it as much. But there is a whole industry there. And there’s even a debate on whether you call this an industry or a program. Going back to your comment about DOH being the sole regulatory department on this, it causes some issues there, because the department of health doesn’t, contrary to, probably belief, they don’t run the health inspections of restaurants. That’s the environment department. And so, right now the environment department doesn’t have anything to do with going in and examining products on the shelf. And, of course, that’s part of why these bills get so long, because then you start figuring out which department is going to oversee this. There’s even, I think, a proposal in one of the bills to create a cannabis commission. There’s a lot of room to, like you said, be innovative. I remembered a conversation with somebody as I was covering a meeting over this, I forget who it was, but she said, “New Mexico doesn’t have to be like Illinois.” Illinois was one of the last states, more recently, to legalize recreational-use and, there was a task force put together by the governor in 2019, and they used the Illinois model as, sort of, a framework. And so, this person I was talking to said, “you know, we’re New Mexico.” That kind of brings into this conversation, that we are New Mexico. We don’t always have to do things the same way Illinois or California, a Colorado…
Jeff Holland: And, I will say this: you know, I love New Mexico. I’m New Mexico through and through. And we have been at the top of all the wrong lists for a long time and at the bottom of all the good lists for a long time. And, if we play our cards right, and do the right things, New Mexico has an opportunity here.
Andy Lyman: And, as we’ll get into in some of these episodes, we don’t have the same mechanism as Colorado or California did, to put this to the voters. And so, it’s really going to put a lot of onus on the lawmakers to make sure this is a good bill, that we’re going to get the people that are opposed to this. Another thing that I’ve been thinking about as we’re talking to these people is, this is a substance that a lot of people had experience with at some point in their youth and they just don’t anymore. There’s a normalization that goes along with it. There’s people who maybe used it, or knew people who used it in the 70s, 80s, and had some sort of personal bias against it. And, I think, as we go forward, to look at, this is a medical substance and I can’t think of any other substance out there that is simultaneously medical, where a doctor can say, “this helps you medically,” but you can also, theoretically go into the equivalent of a Walgreens to go buy it over the counter, right? (laughs). So… and we did talk to someone, we’ll get into one of these episodes later where, she said, “it’s kind of all medical,” right? If you’re buying it recreational. That we’re all using it in some sort of medical fashion, whether it’s for mental health, physical. I guess the same idea that you’re self-medicating if you use alcohol, or Tylenol, anything like that. So, it’s very… I can’t think of another issue like that, where it takes up two different categories at the same time.
Rachael Speegle: Cannabis can be useful for wellness, in a way that shifts from day to day and moment to moment, depending on what’s thrown at us in our life, because it might shift day-to-day. You know, I might need some help with sleep, and then there’s nothing wrong with needing something that gets you down on all fours to play with your kids, your grandkids (laughs) over the weekend, that helps with the stay-at-home cabin fever that we’re all experiencing and stimulates creativity. I don’t think that those categories should have to fall under recreation. I think it’s part of wellness. And, in our American culture, we tend to shame people for pleasure and for seeking pleasure. And, I think that pleasure should be more available in the human experience.
Andy Lyman: And, that goes into the fact that, children can use it medically, right? So, if you have a condition and you’re under 18, you can be recommended to use it, but yet, if you go into a recreational shop, you have to be 21, according to the bills they’re putting forward. So, there’s a whole lot of stuff that we could probably talk hours about (laughter).
Megan Kamerick: That’s what I realized as we were trying to put this together: there’s so much to talk about. And, even over ten episodes, we probably won’t be able to get to all of it. And, one question I had, Andy, was there not… are some lawmakers, am I wrong about this, they wanted to possibly do a constitutional amendment?
Andy Lyman: Yes, that is something that has been going on for a number of years, specifically under the Martinez administration. Remember, we talked about, or I had mentioned that, she really didn’t even want a medical program when she was campaigning for governor. And then, when she actually won, I would have to assume she realized that this was not going to be a very popular decision to do away with this program that actually helps a lot of people. But, she was very staunchly against even legalizing hemp. Now, that’s a whole other conversation. That was sort of an accidental thing that hemp became legal, because she didn’t veto the bill in time and the supreme court said, “well, it’s legal now.” So, looking at it through that lens, she really was, adamantly opposed to legalization of cannabis that has THC in it, and the, sort of, gameplan there was that lawmakers would put it as a constitutional amendment. A little background on our state constitution, our state constitution does not allow for initiatives like other states do, where we can… or a proposition. California, I think, has a proposition program where, you get enough signatures, it goes on the ballot. We don’t have that. The closest thing we have is a constitutional amendment, because we don’t want to just put constitutional amendments in willy-nilly, is that, you have to let the voters decide on that. Now, the problem is, it does become part of the constitution. So then, you have another way of, right now, actually, another constitutional amendment that people are going to decide on is whether the public regulation commission should be elected or appointed. And so, that is going to be in the constitution, however they vote on it. If they vote yes, it should be appointed, it will be part of the constitution and you get into a debate over, how much change should we put into this constitution? And, should our constitution say, “cannabis is legal”? Now that we have a governor sympathetic to this issue, I think the consensus is, we should not do a constitutional amendment, for a number of reasons. As we’ll get into in another episode as well, it actually might take longer. The legislature has to vote two-thirds to approve this Constitutional Amendment, and then it goes to voters. And then it has to go back to the legislature to, sort of, work out the framework of how that law works. I don’t think we’ll see a constitutional amendment in January, but the governor did say everything’s on the table, so… we’ll see.
Megan Kamerick: And that could be a much longer process and, of course, one of the factors we’re looking at here is, there’s some element of, at least trying to be among the states who are earlier in the process, legalizing cannabis. I mean, there are already a number that have, but you lose some of the economic benefit by waiting, because, after a while, “well, everyone has legalized it, so…” (laughs). There is the idea that you want to be on the cusp of the wave, not in the back so you get that economic benefit. But, what’s also interesting to me is, we’d come across, as we were trying to find people to talk about hemp and water and cannabis and water, this is still, on the federal level… so, that makes all these questions… I think that’s one reason, maybe, some lawmakers wanted a constitutional amendment: “well, we didn’t do it. The voters chose it.” (laughs) that, sort of, reality of what it is at a federal level puts a whole other layer of complexity over this, that you wouldn’t have in almost any other business.
Andy Lyman: Yeah, the interesting point you just brought up about it being federally illegal, I had had a conversation with somebody in the past year or so, who worked for a government contractor. And, I think, one thing we, as New Mexico, tend to overlook is we can legalize it all we want, it really doesn’t change it for people that maybe want to use it recreationally, especially if they get drug tested for a job for a government contractor. At that point, it may as well not be legal in New Mexico at all, because if you’re working for the feds, or a contractor for the feds, it doesn’t apply to you, right? It’s still federally illegal. There’s another issue in there, that I don’t know if we’ll have time to get into it in any of these episodes, but one thing I’d covered, I think last year, was the state did a big push for hiring new employees. They called it a rapid-hire event. And I had a patient contact me and say, “i really want to get a job working on a road construction crew, but because I have to use heavy equipment, and I get drug tested, I wouldn’t qualify for that job,” right? So, you do have… even on a state level… this contradictory issue of yes, we want to normalize it. One of the last laws that they passed to update the current medical law does say it should be treated like any other medicine, but even still, on the state level, to get a state job, it’s not treated like any other medicine, right? You could test positive for valium, but because that’s federally legal and it’s on a certain schedule, it’s fine, you know. So, I think there’s still some things we need to work through as a state to figure out how normalized do we want to make this and how… are we o.k. With state employees using cannabis, not at work, but possibly testing positive for it. There’s a whole scope of how long THC lasts in your body. My understanding is you can test positive for it weeks later, and you haven’t even touched it. You can use it on a Friday, go to work on Monday, possibly test positive for it, but you’re not impaired, whereas there are other substances that you could be impaired and wouldn’t be tested for it.
Megan Kamerick: One thing we should add, that you might notice, is that we’re very specifically using the word cannabis rather than marijuana. Andy, why is that?
Andy Lyman: Well, some of the people we’ve spoken with, and I’ve heard this over the years, that marijuana, sort of, goes back to the early part of the century, where there was sort of this fear of marijuana coming across the border. Everyone’s probably heard of the term “reefer madness.” There was a lot of movies in the, I think, 1920s…
Megan Kamerick: Yes, one very specific movie in the 30s, yes, “reefer madness.”
Andy Lyman: Yes, there was actually a movie called “reefer madness,” and there were a couple of them in this propaganda category of movies. And, there’s this argument that the term marijuana, which is a Spanish word, was being used to sort of weaponize, as a scare tactic, as this evil substance that was coming over from Mexico. So, there’s a lot of people in this world that really look back to that time and say, “we should stop using that word.” So, yes, we have sort of chosen to use the word cannabis. It also… it’s a little bit more of a technical term, right? The same reason we’re not using the word pot, or weed, or any of those slang terms. I think that there is, sort of, a decent argument to use the technical term for this.
Megan Kamerick: It’s also, marijuana is a really, highly-politicized word, and, as you referred to that… I think William Randolph Hearst was behind a lot of those pushes (laughs) to demonize marijuana. So, people we’ve talked to who are advocates for legal cannabis or for medical cannabis are very adamant that they want to use that word and not marijuana, because they want to be pragmatic and clear about the scientific benefits of this plant and not get caught up in the past political battles over it.
Andy Lyman: Yeah, and I think, someone we talked to also pointed out to us that cannabis is actually a catch-all term for even hemp, right? It’s the scientific name of a plant and then you drill down to whether it has THC or not.
Megan Kamerick: (exacerbated laughter). There’s so much to talk about and so much complexity, so I’m really hoping that everyone will find this as fascinating as I did, jumping into it as someone who didn’t know anything about it, really.
Andy Lyman: Yeah, and, you know, I’m obviously bringing up some things that we probably are not going to get to. There’s so much to cover in this and I think, even in our ten episodes, we do cover a lot. And, there’s still so much more to cover. So, hopefully everyone can join us and listen in. New episodes are released every Tuesday, so be sure to subscribe today, wherever you get your podcasts.
Megan Kamerick: Growing Forward is a partnership between New Mexico PBS and New Mexico Political Report. Funding provided by a grant from the New Mexico Local News Fund.
Andy Lyman: Our producers are Kevin McDonald and Bryce Dix. Special thanks also to New Mexico Political Report Editor Matthew Reichbach. Music for this episode is by Christian Bjoerklund. And our Growing Forward logo was graciously created by the uber-talented Katherine Conley.
Megan Kamerick: We want to hear from you. To share your story, suggest future episode topics, or just stay in touch... Send us an email at Growing Forward at n-m-p-b-s dot org. Next week, we dive headfirst into the history of medical cannabis in New Mexico.
Andy Lyman: Until next week, thanks for listening and join us again next time, for Growing Forward!
Growing Forward Season 1 Trailer
Growing Forward is a journalistic endeavor designed to cover the cannabis industry in New Mexico. Season 1 officially premieres on Tuesday, September 22nd. The podcast is a collaboration between New Mexico PBS and New Mexico Political Report, with funding provided by the New Mexico Local News Fund.
Note: Interviews for Growing Forward were all conducted via Zoom as a part of our COVID-safe practices. Originally our plan was to do interviews in person, but in order to maintain social distancing and to keep everyone involved safe and healthy, we decided to use the technology available to us.
Growing Forward Logo Created By: Katherine Conley