New Mexico’s medical cannabis program is an ongoing experiment. Long-standing federal limits on research into the plant’s medical uses have forced patients, doctors and dispensary owners to improvise their ways to wellness; meanwhile state regulations keep a lid on unbounded growth the industry might otherwise see.

Number of medical cannabis card holders in Santa Fe County in 2015: 1,934
2016: 3,151

Combined First quarter income for NM Dispensaries, 2017:
$19 Million

There's virtually no limit to the ways cannabis can be harvested, cultivated, extracted, distilled and consumed, and each body reacts differently to the plant. A joint rolled with a sticky sativa strain might ease your stomach cramps, but cause your friend anxiety; perhaps your brother enjoys slathering a cannabidiol-rich salve on his neck to ease chronic pain, but your grandmother prefers leaning back on the couch and resting her eyes after wolfing down a handful of indica-packed gummy bears.

The state Department of Health reports 4,280 people were medical cannabis card holders in Santa Fe County at the end of April, about a 36 percent increase from one year ago and a 121 percent boost from 2015. Patients in Santa Fe who don't want to travel far can peruse five local dispensaries, each of which reflects a distinct style. While their locations were once considered protected information and only patients can shop inside, the storefronts hold their own as a new retail sector in the city. And with the number of cardholders in the state climbing past 40,000 and predicted to grow at a rapid pace, dispensaries in Santa Fe and beyond hope to expand their patient base.

There are caps on how many plants each dispensary can grow, however, and some say that regulation, as well as a requirement that they run as nonprofit enterprises, hinder efficiency and keep the supply artificially low. Yet statewide, the industry's intake is also growing at a brisk pace. First-quarter sales in 2017 were $19 million, a 91 percent rise over the same period in 2016, according to new data from the department.

Employment opportunties at local dispensaries include bud trimming. This worker is at New Mexicann off San Mateo.
Employment opportunties at local dispensaries include bud trimming. This worker is at New Mexicann off San Mateo.

The dispensaries that SFR visited have patients that include teachers, doctors, veterans and trauma victims who’ve used cannabis to wean themselves off cocktails of pharmaceutical drugs, and even former DEA agents who keep their personal medical histories closer to their chests. Some dispensary proprietors swear by their own intuitive abilities to heal the sick and comfort the weary, while others pride themselves on more meticulous record-keeping to figure out what works for their patients.

Nearly all offer today's standard menu of medicine and vessels: edibles like chocolate bars, fruity hard candies and lollipops; glass pipes to smoke the bud; vaporizers for the delicate-lunged; tinctures to drop under your tongue. Because of the state's plant limit, however, most couldn't supply the kind of highly-concentrated oils and other specialty products regularly on offer in other states that require a higher plant count to manufacture.

Since SFR's not a card-carrying patient, we could not sample the offerings. But we did visit all the licensed dispensaries.

SLOW PACE

The lobby of Sacred Garden feels like a social club. On the day of our appointment at the store near Salvador Perez Park, we arrive just in time to see co-owner Zeke Shortes walk in and embrace a boisterous older woman in turquoise, who complained to him of possible tongue cancer as she held his hands; either she was a paid actress or Shortes clearly has a relationship with his patients.

Sacred Garden on Luisa Street brings both the camaraderie and the cannabis.
Sacred Garden on Luisa Street brings both the camaraderie and the cannabis. / Liliana Dillingham

Shortes then started a tour through the facility's kitchen, where we met his lead chef, Mary, who was mixing a bowl of chocolate but was most proud of the gummy worms she'd just cooked up, each packed with about half a joint's worth of cannabis. Between the lobby and kitchen was the green-tinged selling room, where patients consulted with three young budtenders. Jars of hard candy sat on the glass counters: red strawana mango sativa, indica jalapeno-watermelon squares.

Shortes knew little about cannabis before jumping into the business in 2009, having used it only occasionally before then. He migrated to Santa Fe that year from Austin, where he had worked for a decade at the company Applied Materials, "making systems that make semiconductor chips that make the world go 'round,"—a critical role within the architecture of global capitalism, maybe, but one that left Shortes feeling empty. He also had experience as a food broker at Whole Foods, for which he visited dozens of food manufacturing facilities around the world to convince them to sell food products under the store brand. He also did category analysis for the company, boosting its bottom line by figuring out which products weren't selling and acting accordingly.

It's a corporate-heavy background for somebody who now manages a nonprofit health organization, though Shortes has gone on record voicing his displeasure with the health department's nonprofit requirement. But he has an affinity with his patients, 40 percent of whom he estimates suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (this tracks almost perfectly with the 42 percent of patients statewide who obtained a card for PTSD as of April). Shortes himself had a traumatic experience for which he says he medicates: While visiting family in Austin in 2013, an 18-wheeler slammed into his side of the Toyota Corolla, injuring him and his wife. It was more incentive to stay away from big-city life. He prefers the pace of Santa Fe.

"People move slower, and there's more camaraderie," he tells SFR. He smiles when he thinks of the early days in 2009. "At first, we didn't even have a retail shop, and I was doing deliveries," he says. "I was probably only growing three genetics at the beginning, and poorly, compared to what we do now."

Shortes estimates that with his 7,500 patient count, he would be growing thousands more plants were it not for the Department of Health's limit of 450 plants it imposes on producers. In the ideal world he envisions, Sacred Garden could function more like a regular business, taking funding from FDIC-insured banks and specializing in a particular area of the cannabis process, rather than doing everything—growing, cultivating, extracting and retailing—like it is now.

Sacred Garden
1300 Luisa St., 216-9686
sacredgardennm.com

THE SHINY NEW TOY

Shift New Mexico is the county's newest dispensary, located south of the city limits, far away from the competition. The business structure of Shift is complicated, but it's important for understanding what the dispensary claims to be its greatest strength: the quality of its bud flowers.

Lyric Kali, operations manager at Shift New Mexico, says the newest medical cannabis dispensary in Santa Fe prides iteself on quality flower.
Lyric Kali, operations manager at Shift New Mexico, says the newest medical cannabis dispensary in Santa Fe prides iteself on quality flower. / Aaron Cantú

“Shift New Mexico” is the business name for a nonprofit called Keyway, which holds the license to operate the cannabis dispensary, but the actual operator of the license—the entity that does all the cultivation, trimming and retail sales—is a management company called SNM. That company, in turn, is 33 percent owned by Colorado-based Shift Cannabis Company, which “provides oversight to [Shift New Mexico] to make sure they can produce the most cannabis they can with the highest quality, using what we’ve learned from operating in Colorado and other states,” says Reed Porter, co-founder and COO of Shift Cannabis Company.

The perceived stigma of out-of-state ownership, coupled with SFR's previous report that two former employees of the Department of Health had invested in the company before it was awarded a license in a competitive process by the very same department, might explain the initial stiffness of our meeting. Shift Cannabis CEO Travis Howard, also a co-founder, is quick to point out that all of Shift New Mexico's board of directors are state residents, but also leans on the dispensaries' experience "consulting and working with people that are either cultivating, extracting, or selling cannabis" in Colorado and 13 other states as a reason Shift New Mexico has an edge over its competitors.

The dispensary opened March 1 and recently hired a full-time operations manager, Lyric Kali, a 10-year resident of Santa Fe who says the business will employ about 12 people and intends to contract with locals for Shift's other needs. With plans to spend "a couple million" to open up greenhouses and extraction facilities in the future, the dispensary also hopes to to use its relatively deep pockets to build loyalty in Santa Fe's business community.

The dispensary's philosophy "errs on the side of allowing patients to keep their privacy," Howard says, but notes the dispensaries' budtenders are ready to work with patients to uncover their ideal cannabinoid and terpene ratios. He speaks with the kind of polished ease that would resonate in a courtroom. Shift sells cannabis wholesale to other producers, including New Mexicann, which also operates a dispensary in Santa Fe.

Behind the Bisbee Court dispensary are the grow and cultivation rooms, where Shift produces some of the bud it sells in the front. In a grow room where some plants are already several feet in height, high-pressure sodium double-ended lights beam down onto different strains of sativa (long and thin leaves), indica (wide) and hybrids. Howard explains that the operation uses sodium lights rather than more environmentally-friendly LEDs because the latter can't heat the plants enough to expel their nitrogen. If you've ever tried lighting a bowl and watched the bud literally spark when touched by a flame, you've smoked nitrogen-heavy weed—and probably burned your throat in the process.

"Instead of coming down here and saying, 'Hey Santa Fe, we're going to do this awesome thing and take care of your electricity,'" Howard offers, "we said, 'We will get there, and our test facilities in other states will bring the LEDs when we figure out how to solve this problem.'" He says it's another example of how Shift is using its out-of-state experience to build its operations in New Mexico.

Shift New Mexico
24 Bisbee Court, 438-1090
shiftnewmexico.com

THE MOTHER STORE

Ultra Health's Santa Fe dispensary feels more like a doctor's office than do the other cannabis storefronts in the city, only it sports framed pictures of purple-tinged cannabis in the lobby instead of stock photos of soothing landscapes. We even waited a relatively long time in the fluorescent-lit lobby for the dispensary's young manager John Gurule to call us in, just like at the doctor. Out of the seven Ultra dispensaries scattered across New Mexico, this one is the "mother store," Gurule says later. The company also hopes to soon open locations in Silver City, Alamogordo and Deming.

In 2014, Ultra Health, a for-profit company headquartered in Arizona, signed a 30-year management deal with dispensary Top Organics for access to the nonprofit's license to staff, manage and operate dispensaries around New Mexico. Plants grow in Bernalillo for delivery all over the state.

Its owner and CEO is Duke Rodriguez, who served as former Gov. Gary Johnson's Human Services Department secretary. He's a fastidious market-watcher of the cannabis industry in New Mexico, and rolls his observations into press releases that the company blasts out every few weeks. The company reported $1.96 million in sales for the first quarter of 2017, making it the state's top cannabis seller, and Rodriguez also says that Ultra Health is the top wholesaler of cannabis to other dispensaries in the state. He was not present on the day that SFR visited the company's Santa Fe dispensary, and he said this was because Ultra Health does not put administrative staff at its New Mexico dispensaries. Rodriguez is also among chief proponents for the state to lift the plant cap for growers. Ultra Health is currently suing the department over what it calls an "arbitrary and capricious production limitation" on the number of cannabis plants that the state's 35 licensed nonprofit producers can grow.

Although the company's sprawling presence across the state and the sterile aesthetic of its Santa Fe dispensary may hint at an impersonal business approach, it was clear from our visit that there were regular patients at the dispensary who had relationships with the store's budtenders. One slight woman who met the person at the reception desk with a hearty and familiar greeting was taken to the retail portion of the store, where another budtender began rolling her a joint with an indica strain she'd yet to try.

Gurule says that most of the dispensaries' patients showed up after Ultra Health took over Top Organics, where he had been a patient. He eventually started working as a budtender after the two entities struck a deal, and worked his way up to be a manager. He's most interested in talking about his dispensary's relationship to its patients.

"We ask them how their day is, and then it just goes from there," says Gurule, who says his own medication regimen helps him connect with patients. "I understand what they're going through because I go through it too—maybe not the same scenario, but we're pretty much on the same chapter."

In a later phone call, Rodriguez told SFR that the company's lawsuit against the health department over its plant cap will go to trial on July 24 if it is not resolved before then.

Ultra Health
1907 St. Michael's Drive, 216-0898
ultrahealth.com/new-mexico-dispensaries

GOOD VIBRATIONS

Fruit of the Earth Organics is the most new-wave dispensary in Santa Fe, and seems tailored for the counterculture transplants who started arriving in the city in the '60s. Patients can wait to see budtenders in a large tie dye-themed room with massive plush chairs and LED screens listing different strains on offer.

Fruit of the Earth budtender Emma Schutz can tell you how the dispensary stands out because of its outdoor cultivation.
Fruit of the Earth budtender Emma Schutz can tell you how the dispensary stands out because of its outdoor cultivation. / Aaron Cantú

Owner Lyra Barren says she came to know the “shamanic” qualities of cannabis through her experience as a musician. Her dispensary is all about the art of the tincture: Barren claims to have a natural intuition for healing, and mixes all sorts of natural ingredients with variations of cannabis to cure a wide range of ailments, though she specializes in treating cancer symptoms. One of the most powerful effects of cannabis, she tells SFR, is its ability to enhance the healing properties when combined with other herbs. For that reason, Fruit of the Earth also manages a CBD (cannabidiol)-only room attached to the dispensary, where shoppers who don’t have a cannabis card can buy CBD-infused, non-psychoactive tinctures, desserts, juices and even caffeine drinks at an “elixir bar.” There’s also a jar asking for donations for the now-disbanded Standing Rock Sioux Tribe anti-pipeline encampment in North Dakota, hinting at the owner’s personal politics.

It can be easy to write off somebody claiming to have natural healing abilities, but Barren says many people swear by her CBD healing salve. Underneath colorful pieces of cloth shielding us from the harsh fluorescent light, she spoke more candidly about her personal relationship to cannabis than any other dispensary managers were willing to divulge. Fruit of the Earth is the only dispensary in town that gets all its cannabis from an outdoor grow, which is managed by Barren's son, co-owner Jaum Barren. She considers indoor grows incompatible with plant's spiritual needs.

"I believe there's a spirit that goes into the plants," she tells SFR. "When they're growing out with the breezes and the birds, they're more happy and ecstatic, and have a higher vibration. ... Everyone else does regular rotation out of warehouses, but we grow one big harvest, which allows us time to cure the medicine properly for six months." She also says that Fruit of the Earth does not take money from big investors "who can influence what we do for profit," and says she intends to keep it that way.

Fruit of the Earth Organics
901 Early St., 310-7917
fruitoftheearthorganics.com

CANN-DO

"We are definitely advocates for our patients," New Mexicann Natural Medicine dispensary manager Josh Alderete tells SFR. "Cannabis is still considered a Schedule 1 drug [by the federal government], and we still come out here and get it done because we believe in what it does."

Alderete has just taken a pause from consulting with a patient at the New Mexicann dispensary in Santa Fe, which looks like a cross between an Americana beer hall and a doctor's office. Behind the front counter is a large sign that says "We Only Serve New Mexico Grown," and paintings from local artists adorn the walls in the waiting area. Cannabis-themed issues of Sunset Magazine and the New Yorker lay on a coffee table, and a t-shirt from the Drug Policy Alliance that demands "NO MORE DRUG WAR" hangs on a window.

New Mexicann Natural Medicine is bouncing back after a serious accident in 2015, and copes with product shortages due to a Department of Health cap of 450 plants per grower. Pictured is grow manager Gabriel Bustos.
New Mexicann Natural Medicine is bouncing back after a serious accident in 2015, and copes with product shortages due to a Department of Health cap of 450 plants per grower. Pictured is grow manager Gabriel Bustos. / Aaron Cantú

Alderete says New Mexicann is moving forward after the July 2015 accident in which two of its workers, Mark Aaron Smith and Nicholas Montoya, were severely burned while using butane to extract THC from cannabis. Both men have open lawsuits against New Mexicann, but Smith is also suing Montoya, who Smith alleged in a suit asked him to assist in the extraction process despite a lack of experience.

The accident happened at a time when New Mexicann was growing quickly, having added a greenhouse and a hoop house to increase plant production for new dispensaries in Española, Taos and Las Vegas. The dispensary was forced to pay $13,500 in fines for labor violations to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and its board of directors removed its former executive director, Len Goodman.

It's a lot of drama for a place that genuinely appears to work with people throughout the inpatient process and likes to boost other local businesses in Santa Fe. A table in the lobby offers businesss cards from services such as a hair salon, architect and natural phsyician.

Alderete says the dispensary has doctors and pain specialists that frequent the facility to help people obtain cards and consult with the budtenders. If you don't have a card but want to know how you can get one—assuming you have one of the 21 qualifying conditions—you can pop into the dispensary and ask New Mexicann staff. You can also get a member discount if you submit a W2 and make below a certain income threshold.

Peering into the future, Alderete says he'd like for the health department to remove the 450 cap on plants so the dispensary can produce a wider variety of products. He says there is "definitely" a shortage of cannabis in the program.

"Once we have a strain, we only have it for about a week and then it's sold out," he tells SFR. "It'd be nice to have more supply so people can have the most consistent medicine that works for them."

New Mexicann Natural Medicine
1592 San Mateo Lane, 982-2621,
newmexicann.org