It might seem like New Mexico’s 2022 legal cannabis rollout is far in the future, but for those who aim to build new businesses, this summer is a critical time—and local governments aren’t making it easy.
In Santa Fe County, officials have been slow to act and even mischaracterized the recently passed state law in talking to area property owners about their plans. It’s causing angst for Michael Protiva and his partner Silvia Geiger, who want to offer their land and buildings for sale to cannabis entrepreneurs and retire.
“We want to move on this. We want to get started,” Protiva tells SFR. “This has made it complicated for us to get involved with trying to do business with anybody that would be in that industry in terms of potential sale of real estate...It is frustrating. You sit here and wait and wait and wait.”
The state’s Cannabis Regulation Act, signed into law on April 12, calls for the new Cannabis Regulation Division to start accepting applications for producers on Sept. 1, and it rolled out draft rules for those applications in late May. The law does not allow cities or counties to opt out of legalization, but allows local governments some control over where and how close together new cannabis businesses may be located. And many lenders require explicit zoning permission before financial transactions can be complete.
The division sent a letter last week to the heads of the New Mexico Association of Counties and the Municipal League explaining two provisions of the law require “timely action by local jurisdictions.”
“The adult-use cannabis industry will bring economic development opportunities to every corner of our state, and by taking thoughtful action now, local leaders can maximize those opportunities in their communities,” reads the letter from Regulation and Licensing Superintendent Linda Trujillo. “In the best interest of the needs of local communities, for the safety of all our citizens, and in aid to New Mexico’s adult-use cannabis entrepreneurs, we urge each local jurisdiction to act on this determination issue as soon as possible.”
The law allows local governments to set a minimum distance between cannabis establishments and schools or daycare centers of up to 300 feet, though it cannot require an existing medical cannabis licensee to move. And, if a city or county fails to make rules about cannabis locations before a new business gets a license from the state, that business “cannot subsequently be required to relocate,” the letter says.
Protiva argues that their property’s Santa Fe County’s zoning already allows a business such as a gas station, restaurant, greenhouse or bank, so adding cannabis to the list in recognition of the new state law shouldn’t be too great a hurdle.
This spring, the Santa Fe County Land Use Department gave contradictory information when Protiva and Geiger asked about using a commercial property in Avanti Business Park, off the East Frontage Road near the National Guard Armory, for a future cannabis business.
First, Land Use Planner Jose Larranaga wrote that no cannabis production would be permitted in the county before next year, an erroneous interpretation of the law.
“The State law for the growing and use of recreational Cannabis does not take effect until April of 2022,” Larranaga wrote in an April 19 email. “Santa Fe County will amend the Sustainable Land Development Code to address the growing and use of recreational Cannabis when the law takes effect.”
Then, after SFR and a county commissioner asked questions, Larranaga wrote back to say rules would be altered sooner. At the same time, county spokeswoman Carmelina Hart wrote to SFR that the county was treating the matter with “utmost urgency,” noting that it was “currently developing ordinances to be presented to and approved by the [County Commission] no later than September 1.”
Now, two more months have passed and Protiva still can’t get a straight answer. No public hearings have taken place and no drafts of proposed rules have been published, Hart confirmed Monday.
“How soon is soon?” says Protiva. “This property would be good for a cannabis microbusiness. It already has two buildings and there is room for a 10,000-square-foot commercial greenhouse, but it’s hard because I don’t know if we would be allowed to do that. Do we have to wait until the zoning is set to advertise and market it? This is holding up all investments in real estate and leases for retail and cultivation.”
Commissioner Hank Hughes tells SFR the county’s Growth Management Department is working on a zoning rule, but nothing is scheduled yet for discussion. “The county is moving along to make sure everything is ready” by the deadline, he says, noting he hasn’t been contacted by others who have an issue with the timeline.
Santa Fe City Council hasn’t held any hearings about cannabis-related zoning rules either. City spokesman Dave Herndon said the Land Use/Planning Commission policy committee “will meet soon and is intended to propose legislation with regards to zoning.”
Will Santa Fe’s local governing bodies take some cues from recent action in Albuquerque? The state’s largest city last week finalized a new zoning code that contemplates the recreational cannabis industry for the first time. Mayor Tim Keller’s administration proposed tight rules on the businesses, such as forbidding pot shops on “Main Street” corridors including Central Avenue and limiting operating hours. City Councilors didn’t go for the strict approach, although they did impose rules that call for a buffer between retail stores and separate standards for cannabis “microbusiness” licensees.
Cannabis businesses in states where recreational use has been legal for years want to branch into New Mexico right away, and it’s not just storefronts and manufacturing facilities, but also larger-scale, open-air farms for outdoor cultivation.
Bill Conkling tells SFR in early June he’s been actively searching for a property in Northern New Mexico to build similar operations to Maggie’s Farm in Colorado, the company he founded 11 years ago that now employs nearly 350 people.
“I’m looking around all over...I’ve got to look for what I believe is the best optimal spot,” he says. “We want to have one secured by the time we can apply for a cultivation and production license.”