The official legalization of recreational cannabis is looming ever closer while local governments have been rushing to put ordinances in place. As the town of Taos Council wrapped up their special meeting Oct. 7, they became the one of the last municipalities around the Enchanted Circle to formalize local regulations relating to cannabis retail locations, consumption spaces and grow operations.

The new ordinance will help guide those looking to produce, sell or generally consume cannabis. While the state’s Cannabis Regulation Act establishes many of the key foundations of the ways cannabis will be regulated, it has been left up to local governments to decide how they will regulate the placement of dispensaries, grow operations and consumption spaces, the hours of operation and local permitting fees.

Little local control

The town management expressed frustration in their narrow ability to set local guidelines for cannabis use. “There is very limited authority for local governments to regulate cannabis,” said town attorney Stephen Ross. “They took the time to write up a list of the things we can’t do,” he said of the bill.

Currently, the state-level bill controls aspects of new regulation like signage, cannabis transportation and facility distancing (which cannot be prohibited by more than 300 feet of distance from another cannabis store, school or daycare).

Essentially the ordinance allows local municipalities to “[regulate] the time, place and the manner of various activities relating to cannabis,” said Ross.

“This bill sucks,” said Town Manager Rick Bellis of the New Mexico Cannabis Regulation Act. He said there were “very few” city planners and lawyers involved in creating the original bill, which resulted in an act that left local governments with little breathing room.

Zoning and placement

One factor the town does have control over is where to allow various cannabis facilities. The town ordinance as written does not allow for cannabis operations of any kind to be located within 300 feet of the Historic Taos Plaza or any private residence. Facilities must also must be located more than 300 feet away from schools, day care centers – and each other.

Councilman Nathaniel Evans worried that limiting cannabis facilities to be 300 feet or more away from each other may cause a conflict, serving those who are lucky enough to get there first. “I’m worried about first come first serve,” he said. “It’s not like two bars can’t be next to each other because they’re both serving alcohol.”

Bellis tried to quell Evans’ worries. “That wouldn’t happen,” he said of the concern that some smaller players may be left out if there is nowhere to rent. “Most [cannabis operations] aren’t looking to be right in the center of downtown, most want to be on Paseo.”

“If you don’t put the rules in place, you wind up with everyone in the same spot,” Bellis noted, adding that if a cannabis shop displaces another business “it’s very tough to get them back.”

Overall, Bellis said they essentially are not limiting where cannabis dispensaries can be, other than the requirement they be in a space zoned for retail. He also noted that having an integrated business license (where a business grows and sells its own cannabis) “will give them greater opportunity for selling because they can do it on the property they are growing or manufacturing on.”

Along with setting rules for placement of shops, the ordinance sets operating hours. Similar to alcohol, cannabis dispensaries and consumption spaces will be allowed to operate from 7 a.m. to midnight every day of the week.

A few small changes

Though the presented ordinance was fairly straightforward, several minor changes were suggested by council members.

The town ordinance sets requirements for cannabis business registration and permitting. Councilman Pascual Maestas pointed out the ordinance, as written, requires those registering to submit their residential address, birthday and social security number – steps Maestas said were too far for businesses still dealing in cash.

“The banking industry really hasn’t caught up yet,” said Maestas. “I think it’s bad to tell people about others taking home a bunch of cash … this is going a bit too far.”

Instead, Maestas suggested the language be changed to require a mailing address and a phone number, thus providing some potential security for those businesses still dealing in cash. The language was changed to reflect his sentiment.

When it came to consumption spaces, Councilman Evans pointed out the ordinance refers to simply the “smoking” of cannabis. Evans noted a more and more common way to consume cannabis was by vaping, or inhalation via vapor dispensing pens. The language was changed to include vaping.

What’s next

Some concerns arose over the uncertainty regarding how to regulate driving under the influence and how the local community can best benefit from the increase in revenue.

Maestas wondered if the town would be liable if someone left a consumption space while intoxicated by cannabis and got into a car accident. 

“They are still liable and they were liable before,” said Stephen Ross. He explained it was similar to alcohol, and that the fault remains with the intoxicated driver.

“We’ve experienced too many car crashes in our community the past couple of weeks,” he said, making a request that the Taos Police Department “keep an eye” on the situation and “keep us informed if he's seeing more accidents.”

Maestas and Evans also questioned how local law enforcement will handle potentially intoxicated cannabis users. Because no test currently exists to accurately tell if someone has recently smoked or eaten cannabis [to a level of danger from impairment], Ross and Bellis said the town will be relying on the personal judgement of law enforcement. “Officers are very well adept at telling if someone is impaired or not,” said Ross.

“It’s a whole new world, we’re all going to learn,” said Bellis.

Mayor Dan Barrone asked about the money the town will see from the sale of recreational cannabis. Bellis explained that all of the money goes to the state and is redistributed by a formula. “The fees being charged are pretty minimal,” said Bellis. “It’s the [gross receipts taxes] that really makes the difference.”

Barrone said he wanted to make sure that enough money came back to the town for drug treatment programs. “We just need to push to make sure that we get more money through the state for treatment ... We continue to need it. Whether it be medical or social, I think we need to get some of that money back to our community for treatment.”

As the meeting wrapped up and the ordinance was revised, Evans made a motion to approve it with the changed language. Maestas seconded the motion and it passed unanimously (Councilman Darien Fernandez was not present at the meeting).

Though the ordinance passed, Ross said not enough public notice was given (two weeks of notice are legally required), and the council would have to ratify the ordinance now, then do a re-ratification after enough notice was given to allow for public input.

“This gives the public and possible producers the opportunity to review the ordinance,” said Bellis. “We want [the ordinance] to be bulletproof.”

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