From medical marijuana to hemp crafts, the versatility of the cannabis plant was on display at the first Southern New Mexico Cannabis Expo.
More than 20 vendors set up shop in the Las Cruces Convention Center selling CBD oils, tinctures, pain relief creams—even dog treats.
New Mexico’s medical cannabis program has nearly 80,000 patients and is estimated to grow to 100,000 by 2021. That’s according to a work group report on marijuana legalization issued by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office in October 2019.
But with legalization comes issues like how to avoid roll-off in the medical program, medical cannabis access to rural areas and affordability.
Ben Lewinger is executive director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce. To address those concerns and others, Lewinger said the work group recommends the state adopt a joint medical-adult use program that puts patients first.
“I think the important part about protecting the medical program, which is something the governor has spoken a lot about, is ensuring that we have sufficient supply for patients and the working group had some suggestions with that to make sure that patients are served before the recreational market—and then to keep the medicine affordable," Lewinger said. "Part of that is tax incentives for people to stay in the program where the taxes on the recreational program can actually subsidize the medicine for patients that stay with the medical program.”
Robert Duran said he would support a Medicaid-style program that subsidizes medical cannabis for patients. Duran is chief operating officer of Natural Releaf, a hemp farm and dispensary in Las Cruces.
“It is important that those medical patients are taken care of because they truly are using it for that—medicinal purposes. The adult-use or the recreational market is a completely different avenue. Although a lot of the products are exactly the same, the use or purpose of why they’re being used is a little bit different," Duran said. "So, it’s very important that we’re taking care of those medical patients and ensuring that they’re getting the medicine and the best medicine that we can produce for them.”
The governor’s report also estimates that a mature legalized marijuana industry would create 11,000 new jobs in farming, manufacturing and retail—making it a top 15-employment sector.
Given that New Mexico has the second highest average age of producers in the country—60 years old—Duran said cannabis growers would bring new blood to the farming industry.
“Most of our folks that work out at the farm are under the age of 40 and very interested in the farm, very interested about growing cannabis and excited about what this has to bring. So, I think that alone will be a huge benefit for the state as a whole. Not only for marijuana but also for hemp as well. It’s just a lot of things that are coming online that are going to be huge for the state as it pertains to jobs," Duran said.
The work group stated while data is unclear on whether legalizing cannabis increases drugged driving, some drivers already use cannabis and drive. Lewinger said there’s no Breathalyzer test for marijuana—but drug recognition experts are key to detecting impaired drivers.
“A big part of the working group’s push is to create funding to provide more training, more officers to make sure that local and county law enforcement is prepared to deal with an influx of substance impairment. And I think the challenge is going to be people who have no experience with cannabis who have never smoked and consumed cannabis doing it for the first time and thinking that they’re okay to drive," Lewinger said. "People who have been experienced with cannabis, people who are enrolled in the medical program now, it’s not an issue once recreational comes.”
Noemi Wallace and her husband run 420 Connect New Mexico. Their business issues medical cannabis cards to patients and caregivers. Wallace, who also owns a caregiver agency in Valencia County, named several reasons why she’s passionate about medical cannabis.
“My husband’s a combat vet. He was not able to use cannabis when he was a pain and spine specialist. I’m a chronic pain patient. I work with disabled and elderly patients. I’m aware of the opioid abuse dependency problem in our state and because of that I just feel that it’s a lifesaver for so many patients," Wallace said.
As advocates aim to legalize cannabis, hemp is already there. New Mexico State University’s Board of Regents approved the state Department of Agriculture’s hemp rule in September.
Daniel Manuchia is the former chair of the department’s Industrial Hemp Task Force and has cultivated hemp for a decade. Manuchia sees another future for the crop used to make oils, textiles and other goods.
"Where I really think the revolution is going to come is a replacement of fossil fuels with bioplastics—that your fork, your dinner plate that’s made of plastic will be made of degradable hemp in a cost-effective way and you can buy it locally as well. So, there’s some real revolutionary aspects coming down the pike," Manuchia said.
In addition to THC and CBD, Manuchia said the market is focused on breeding the next wave of cannabinoids.
Lewinger said although he agrees with the governor’s approach to legalize cannabis, it’s up to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to come up with a clean bill that works for everybody. The 2020 state legislative session begins Jan. 21.