First-time marijuana users can't know what they’re getting themselves into when they take their first puff of flower or first bite of an edible, and often wind up consuming too much too quickly and in a place they really didn’t want to be.
The state of New Mexico, now on the cusp of an April 1 start for recreational marijuana sales, might be guilty of the same overzealousness that leaves some virgin marijuana users ducking under window frames and hiding in closets after underestimating a drug, which, for all its medicinal benefits, is still a psychoactive substance.
There are a lot of reasons why recreational marijuana should be a net positive for the state, and most people are very familiar with those reasons by now.
Increased tax revenue from another major industry that lessens the state’s dependence on fickle oil and gas is a major plus at the top of that list. Linda Trujillo, superintendent of the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department, told the Legislature’s Economic Development and Policy Committee in July that the state’s marijuana industry is expected to produce $50 million in revenue in its first year. In time, she said that number could balloon to as much as $300 million annually for the state. That still doesn't come close to oil and gas, however, which brought in a record $1.25 billion last fiscal year, according to the New Mexico State Land Office.
Legalizing marijuana is also a win for the libertarians among us, who hold personal freedom as a key value. Legalization (in theory) should free up law enforcement agencies to shift their focus and resources to dealing with deadly narcotics, particularly fentanyl, whose death toll has risen sharply during the pandemic.
But there are problems with legalization that the state is also sure to encounter, and that’s not a theory, but a fact based on the experience of other states that went through this door before us, like Colorado.
Our northern neighbor became the first state to legalize retail weed in 2012. According to a report from the Colorado Department of Revenue, statewide recreational marijuana sales have reached a total of $10.3 billion since retail shops opened in 2014. Yet the state also saw its black market expand significantly, contrary to what pro-legalization proponents said would happen. Seizures at illegal marijuana grows in El Paso County, Colorado, for example, rose by 17 percent immediately following legalization, according to the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program. Impaired driving arrests rose by 49 percent in El Paso County following legalization.
More broadly, legalization of marijuana has allowed for a new ability to study its effects on mental health, and they don’t all show that the green leaf is a benign substance, as many marijuana enthusiasts suggested before legalization began to sweep the country. A 2017 study published in Psychiatric Times concluded that “numerous lines of evidence suggest a correlation between cannabis consumption and a variety of psychiatric conditions, including cannabis-induced psychosis.” This doesn’t bode well for a state with a dearth of behavioral health providers and a long history of substance abuse, among both adults and youth.
Environmentalists in the state have also already expressed concern over the huge amount of water that will be consumed by new marijuana grow operations as well.
And unlike Colorado, where legislators decided to allow municipalities to decide for themselves whether to legalize recreational sales, cities and towns in New Mexico don’t have a choice; all they can do is choose where new cannabis operations can set up shop.
The Enchanted Circle should take a conservative approach to this question, ensuring that cannabis shops and grow operations remain as far away as possible from institutions we know won’t want them in their backyard, including places of worship, and most importantly, schools and daycare centers.
Beyond that, Taos County residents should take it slow, and if they choose to consume cannabis, do so responsibly.