When gold turned up at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, thousands of prospectors headed to the Sierra Mountain foothills with dreams of getting rich. A lucky few earned their fortunes, but most of the Forty-Niners returned home with little more than they started out with.
The latest rush to riches has people flocking to New Mexico to build marijuana greenhouses and grow lucrative cannabis crops. Despite state rules that require operations to be "nonprofits" and federal laws that still consider marijuana a controlled substance, the modern-day green rush is on.
After months of reporting, SFR obtained a list of the pot prospectors hoping they'll get a golden ticket when the state awards new medical cannabis producer licenses.
Most of the hopefuls are from New Mexico, but the list also includes the names of out-of-state business honchos like Cheryl Buley Avioli, a former New York State Horse Racing and Pari-Mutuel Wagering Board chairwoman and public services commissioner who is married to Greg Avioli, a horseracing and online wagering executive. (Read more about their controversial application here.)
Some are big-name lawyers. Cops who used to bust people for growing marijuana also want in on the action. So do health care advocates. We even found people from Chimayó, Pecos and Galisteo who have signed up to serve on boards of directors. Richard Guay, a resident of Corrales, a former prison commissary company lobbyist, is ready to grow too.
The names on the nonprofit incorporation paperwork SFR dug up from the New Mexico Corporations Bureau show a majority of applicants want to set up shops in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, where most of the state's 16,700 cannabis patients live. Other applicants are seeking permission to open dispensaries in more rural places like Grants and Española.
Even though the state's medical cannabis program isn't generating revenue even close to the whopping levels reported in neighboring Colorado, the industry here is still attractive.
In 2014, health department reports show revenues generated from the sale of 2.1 tons of cannabis topped $21.4 million. This year, the state's current 23 licensed producers are on track to zoom past that number. Between January and June, the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department collected nearly $950,000 in gross receipts taxes on sales of $13 million. In just the last three months, growers harvested close to 1,900 plants and raked in more than $7.4 million.
And now that the state has granted permission to 10 growers to increase their production from 150 to 450 plants, those numbers could see triple-digit growth over the next few years.
The Race Is On
The health department hasn't issued new growing licenses since 2010. So when officials said they would consider allowing up to 12 more producers this spring, it opened the floodgates for applicants trying to hit paydirt.
While two applications got knocked out after the May 1 filing deadline, 84 others were still crossing their fingers until late Monday. That's when the health department announced its board of evaluators had narrowed the applicants to 17 but still refused to make the names public.
The idea that some producers are aiming for affluence has patients concerned. After years of medication shortages, especially in underserved areas of the state, they're anxious to see who gets the new licenses and review their manufacturing standards, quality-control programs and testing procedures. They also want to see where the new nonprofits plan to operate.
Others wonder if political cronyism will play a factor and if licenses will be awarded to people of color and women.
On May 4, SFR filed a request to inspect the applications. In July, when program managers refused to release the information, this reporter, in partnership with the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, sued the health department for full access to the documents.
Health Department Secretary Retta Ward now says she'll make a decision in 30 days, in the same press release that explains the department plans a formal process for gettting rid of confidentiality rules for producers.
SFR isn't waiting around. Instead, we headed to the secretary of state's office to check a database at the Corporations Bureau for any businesses that used the words "cannabis" or "marijuana" to describe the purpose of their organizations.
Within a few days, the bureau produced a detailed spreadsheet. It shows several prominent New Mexicans ready to work for cannabis businesses if Ward selects their applications, including Cody Unser, the daughter of racecar driver Al Unser Jr. At the same time she's completing a master's degree in public health, she's listed on the board of Guay's nonprofit group, called Apothecary.
Defense attorney Jason Bowles, best known for helping defend former state treasurer Robert Vigil against corruption charges, is on the long list, along with former law enforcement officers, including former Department of Public Safety Secretary and Bernalillo County Sheriff Darren White, James "Scott" Baird, who lost his bid to become sheriff in Bernalillo County last fall, and former Bernalillo County Deputy David Linthicum.
Mark Springer's Santa Fe-based Medical Marijuana Inc. is among applicants. He sued the health department after his original application was approved in 2010 but he was not granted a license by then-Health Department Secretary Catherine Torres. Last December, District Judge Jennifer Attrep ordered Ward to issue Springer's nonprofit a license this go-round if it still meets all the regulator's evaluation criteria.
Erica Peters, the daughter of Santa Fe businessman Gerald Peters, is also on the list, which features some creative organization names, like Greatful Meds, Mr. Nice Guy, Green Fire Pharms, PurLife and Tim Star's Weeds of Change, which listed medicinal herbs rather than cannabis or marijuana as its business purpose.
Even with all the information, patients still haven't seen the group's actual applications, and secrets remain about who's financially backing the efforts.
WHO WANTS IN?
New Mexico nonprofits seeking to get involved in the growing medical cannabis industry have filed incorporation papers with the secretary of state's office. SFR created a database that allows you to search by the names of officers, corporation names and city.
Afraid of jinxing their chances to be awarded a lucrative medical cannabis license in New Mexico, most pot prospectors declined an invitation from SFR to share their plans.
But not everyone was so superstitious.
Star, one of the applicants still holding out hope, knows that getting a license is a long shot, but he decided to launch Weeds of Change in Española after discovering the benefits of juicing cannabis leaves.
The 60-year-old architect and general contractor claims he hadn't smoked pot for years but rediscovered cannabis when his kidneys started to fail. Uncomfortable with marijuana's psychoactive effects, Star found a way to make juice with high cannabinoid levels that helped his organs recover but that didn't make him high.
If his application is selected, Star's got greenhouse construction plans ready to go. Once seeds are planted, he'll build out a storefront dispensary he plans to call Five Leaves Organic.
Applying isn't cheap. Star says his group has already spent $20,000 preparing their 1,200-page program application. And that's probably small potatoes. Star tells SFR that he heard some bigger nonprofits "spent in excess of $100,000" on their own application packages, which he saw rolled into the Harold Runnels Building on carts.
"We were watching it go by and going 'holy crap,'" Star adds.
Star says he hopes he made the cut of the top 20 percent of applicants. The health department says they are sending letters to those who are no longer in the running and will refund $9,000 of their $10,000 application fee. Star says he hasn't recieved a letter yet.
"It's a total turkey shoot," he says. "You have no idea if they're going to issue any permits at all."
Peter St. Cyr is an independent reporter who has been covering the #medpot industry in New Mexico since 2007. Write: peter@SFReporter.com.