As we approach the one-year anniversary of legal cannabis retail sales we want to pause and reflect on how the state of New Mexico and its local jurisdictions have handled the end of cannabis prohibition.
Cannabis is Medicine and all Cannabis Use Has Medical Value
Cannabis is a critical medicine used by people to treat a variety of medical conditions. This is one of the reasons why it is so important for governments to shift away from cannabis prohibition and provide safe access. That’s easier said than done primarily because of the consequences that have emerged over the last 100 years since we took a product that helped so many, and forced it into an unregulated illegal market.
In the early twentieth century, the United States started outlawing cannabis and made its use, possession, and sale criminal. That resulted in the immediate creation of an illegal market which grew stronger and more dangerous over the last 100 years. Now that we have a legal industry emerging out of that environment, we have challenges dealing with the past that have disrupted our ability to provide adequate access to quality and affordable medicine for people.
Challenges for Legal Cannabis
Our hope is to unpack some of these challenges, understand where they come from and have honest conversations about how to best address them. This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list so please feel free to add what’s missing in the comments.
Challenge 1: Keep our kids safe
The legal cannabis industry will make our communities safer for our kids. That’s the basic truth that we need to help people understand. Most fears related to cannabis emerge from the 100-year-old war on cannabis. The legal market will minimize the illegal activities associated with the traditional market making it harder for minors to buy cannabis at school or from friends. That does not mean the challenge goes away totally, but it means that the legal cannabis industry will play a central role in reducing access to minors.
Challenge 2: This isn’t alcohol
“Legalize it and regulate it like alcohol.” If you never heard that then you weren’t listening. It never made sense to allow for a legal alcohol industry and outlaw cannabis. Cannabis is a medicine that safely boosts the quality of life for many people. Alcohol is a poison that, when consumed at low levels, reduces stress and may make you feel good, but when consumed in large quantities causes quick or even slow death. It's dangerous, deadly, and because of the behavior its abuse causes, it's a problem for our community to manage. Not only can you not say the same for cannabis, but you can say the exact opposite. Cannabis is good for people, safe to consume, and does not lead to the same kind of behavior that alcohol does.
Challenge 3: Competing with the traditional illegal market
It’s not the traditional market’s fault that it emerged in the environment that it did. Our government’s decisions did that to the market. Over 100 years it fine-tuned itself to fill the void prohibition created. International criminal networks emerged to take advantage of it. Local criminal networks did the same, and they still exist. Minors have easier access to the unregulated cannabis market than they do to the alcohol market. If we want to reduce that access and reduce or eliminate criminal networks benefiting from cannabis, we need to support the legal industry in its competition with the traditional market. That is only possible if the legal industry is capable of competing on price in addition to quality and safety. Under the existing NM rules, taxes on cannabis are planned to increase which means the industry needs to be more efficient to get their prices in line with the traditional market.
Challenge 4: Social equity and criminal justice reform
Obviously, people who have been convinced of non-violent crimes related to cannabis need to have their records cleared. It was an error of judgment for the government to criminalize cannabis and we need to be accountable for fixing that. At the same time, we need to watch how our new policies may be creating new injustices. For instance, many cities have enacted zoning laws intended to keep cannabis businesses away from affluent neighborhoods, but have not made the same rules for lower-income neighborhoods. So in attempts to ease concerns that emerge from Challenge 1 by keeping cannabis away, cities have created new imbalances in how our government treats different neighborhoods. That’s the opposite of social equity.
The legal cannabis industry has been active in New Mexico for just under a year so we have a long way to go in competing with the traditional market that has existed for over 100 years. Here are several ways we can work together to make more progress in supporting the legal industry. Again, this isn’t intended to be comprehensive so please add your ideas in the comments.
Solution 1: Ask policymakers to stop using the alcohol analogy when making or justifying their decisions.
When cities and states treat cannabis as medicine they make better choices. Alcohol sales are regulated because alcohol is a popular poison that causes people to behave in ways that creates safety concerns for our communities. Cannabis does not do this so when local jurisdictions put in place regulations based on their experience with alcohol, they are working against the legal industry’s efforts to set itself apart from the past. They also legitimize the stigma against cannabis patients by implying that cannabis is equally bad for people.
Solution 2: Allow adults to have easier access to the legal industry.
Related to Solution 1, local jurisdictions have put in place a variety of restrictions that limit access to cannabis. Limiting hours of operation and creating new zoning rules limiting cannabis business placement have proven to be useless and have limited the industry in both providing access and demonstrating to the community that there’s nothing to fear from the legal industry. In fact, based on our experience operating a 24-hour drive-through, providing this access and shining light at all hours of the day and night have proven to make our neighborhood safer. Our neighbors appreciate a reduction in vagrancy and renewed exposure to their businesses. In addition, many people find themselves in need of medicine at night and appreciate having legal options at all times.
Solution 3: Ask policymakers to consider equity in the community when restricting the industry.
When policymakers set restrictions we frequently find that the impact is treating lower-income people differently than more affluent people. The best example of this is using zoning to keep the cannabis industry away from certain residential zones. Zoning is complicated, and depending on your income, your residence may or may not fall within a zone because of the different types of residences (apartments, townhomes, single family, etc). That restricts access to employment and medicine in neighborhoods that stand to benefit the most from better access. This is the opposite of social equity.
Solution 4: Ask policymakers to treat the cannabis industry like any other industry.
If policymakers and other leaders in our communities understand that the legal cannabis industry will make our communities safer, they shouldn’t feel the need to put in place unnecessary restrictions like hours of operation or zoning limits. Treating the cannabis industry like other good industries will enhance social equity, reduce access to minors, ensure that people have access to medicine when they need it, and allow us to demonstrate to the community that cannabis is good and nothing to fear.