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Local officials concerned about legal cannabis

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John Mondragon shops at the Minerva medical dispensary on Tuesday in Santa Fe. Cannabis was legalized for recreational users in New Mexico this year. (AP Photo)

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Possession and cultivation of recreational cannabis by adults became legal in New Mexico Tuesday, leaving many officials in Chaves County worried about the impact a legal open market for the substance could have on communities.

In accordance with House Bill 2 (HB 2), which was passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in April, adults 21 and older in New Mexico can now lawfully possess up to 2 ounces of cannabis, 16 grams of cannabis extract or 800 milligrams of edibles outside their residence.

Cannabis in greater quantities can be stored in a private residence, according to HB 2, as long as it is “not visible from a public place.” People can also grow up to six marijuana plants — with a household limit of 12 — for personal use. State regulators are still working to create rules of operation for retailers, production facilities and other establishments, with the first licenses to be issued by April.

New Mexico joins 18 other states, the District of Columbia and Guam in having legalized recreational cannabis. In a press release Tuesday, Lujan Grisham hailed legalization as “a huge step forward” for the state.

“We are proactively stopping the criminalization of people of color for cannabis possession, and we are building a new industry in which all New Mexicans can participate — and will bring millions of dollars to our local communities and our state,” she said.

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Roswell Police Chief Phil Smith said legalization will not lead to significant changes for the daily operation of his department. He explained he and the city have been preparing for possible legalization since 2017, prompting the department not to certify any of its four drug-sniffing dogs in cannabis detection.

“We still have a strong community here and we believe that we can handle our business,” he said. “Things change and we adapt to it.”

Smith said law enforcement has rarely made arresting people for possession of small amounts of cannabis a major priority and decriminalization is not a problem in that respect.

He has greater concerns though about cannabis businesses opening next year, something that will bring with it larger demand, and what he believes are other impacts such as a rise in crime, mental health issues and homelessness.

“What people don’t recognize or they want to ignore are the side effects,” he said of legalization.

Chaves County Sheriff Mike Herrington said law enforcement will face challenges regarding road safety, given the lack of a field test available to determine if a person with cannabis in their system was impaired while driving.

He added that HB 2 also does not provide law enforcement with a way to know whether marijuana found on a person was purchased or grown illegally.

“Whenever it ends up in a baggy, we don’t know where it came from,” Herrington said at a June 16 panel discussion about the potential effects of legalization, in which Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh and state Sen. Cliff Pirtle also participated.

Revenue

A 12% excise tax will be levied on commercial sales of cannabis products, which will be in addition to Gross Receipts Taxes that differ depending on jurisdiction. That excise tax will rise each year beginning in 2025 before reaching 18%, plus Gross Receipts Tax.

A fiscal impact report on HB 2 estimates that in Fiscal Year 2023, the excise tax is forecast to generate $20 million for the state and $10 million for local governments.

Kintigh though said he believes the revenue generated by sales of cannabis will be outweighed by the increased costs associated with legalization.

“We’re going to have to spend more money on behavioral health, mental health, we’re going to have more demands on law enforcement,” he said.

Business

Pirtle said he believes the cost of complying with regulations and obtaining the licenses will be too high for most small New Mexico producers to comply with.

“The cost of entering the market is so huge that what you are going to see is a huge influx of money and producers out of state,” he said.

Heather Brewer, spokesperson for the Cannabis Control Division in the New Mexico Regulation & Licensing Department, said Monday that a tiered fee system of licenses will be available to prospective entrepreneurs and producers.

“So it is certainly our hope that everyone who wants to enter into this market can take advantage of this economic opportunity, is able to do so,” she said. Brewer added public input is still being sought as the Division works to form the new rules for producers and businesses.

Local regulations

Unlike California and some other states, HB 2 does not enable localities to prohibit operation of cannabis businesses within their respective jurisdictions. However, the law does allow for reasonable time, place and manner rules, such as restrictions on the density of licensed establishments and operating times.

“My position is we treat it like alcohol,” Kintigh said. Examples he said, would include not allowing sales of marijuana on Sunday within city limits and prohibiting sales within 300 feet of a church.

Law enforcement also warned that despite the legalization of recreational marijuana, officers with the RPD and deputies with the Chaves County Sheriff’s Office will be prohibited from using recreational marijuana. Smith added the city has random drug testing of its officers, which will continue, and the department will not loosen its hiring standards.

Kintigh, a former FBI agent, also said that while possession might be legal under state law in New Mexico, it is still a federal offense.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or breakingnews@rdrnews.com.

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