ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – You may have already heard about the millions of dollars worth of recreational cannabis sold over the last few weeks. The latest reports put the statewide recreational total at over $6 million since sales began at the start of the month. But, while some have been able to cash in, other would-be business owners are still wading through the regulatory process.
April 1 — the first day of legal recreational cannabis sales — brought close to $2 million in sales statewide, according to the Cannabis Control Division (CCD). KRQE News 13 reported about the excitement surrounding opening day. The Governor even marked the occasion by visiting an Albuquerque pot shop where she didn’t purchase anything herself but spoke to a lot of customers about the new industry.
On day two of sales, there was a little more than $1 million in transactions statewide, CCD reports show. On day three, sales shrank to a bit over $550,000.
Now the latest available report shows that from April 4 to April 7, sales averaged about $651,000 per day. The one-week total for the state (April 1-7) passed $6 million — but the numbers show New Mexico customers may be over the initial hype. And some applicants are frustrated that they are still watching from the sidelines.
KRQE News 13 spoke with several would-be retailers and licensees who are still waiting on their licensing approval. They were left out of the opening week, but they’re hopeful they’ll get to join in on the sales soon.
“I think there’s still that excitement [with sales] but for me, it’s been frustration,” one would-be retailer says. The prospective retailer, who didn’t want to be identified, also added, “I’m not feeling good right now. And all I’m doing is collecting all my papers and documenting everything.”
The applicant has been trying to get through the process for months now. Through a public records request, KRQE News 13 discovered that the applicant originally began submitting paperwork to the CCD back in the fall of 2021, months before the applicant expressed any concerns to KRQE News 13.
Completing and submitting that paperwork, of course, isn’t exactly simple. KRQE News 13 previously reported on the challenges that would-be license holders have to go through. Cannabis producers and growers, for example, have to submit to a background check, provide a social and economic equity plan, give proof of age, provide a premises diagram, submit a water and energy use plan, and prove they have water rights to grow.
Any of those could provide a hang-up in the licensure process. The would-be applicant who’s been trying to get approved since last year, says getting water rights has been particularly challenging. And while that’s no fault of the CCD, the applicant says they still feel that the division has been less than fully transparent about the status of their application. And this would-be retailer isn’t alone.
“Me and my partner applied in August of last year. We tried to apply quickly just because we knew there was gonna be like a bottleneck effect,” explains Wilfredo Rivera, who’s trying to earn a cannabis microbusiness license in Albuquerque. “Our issue now is that we sent in all the paperwork. We did everything the right way since last year, and we’re still paying for our facility that’s not producing any income.”
KRQE News 13 spoke to Heather Brewer, the spokesperson for the CCD, broadly about problems with processing applications. When asked to address applicants who feel like they haven’t been able to contact the department about their applications, she said the department takes communication seriously.
“It is never anything that we want to hear as a division whose mission is to support a thriving adult-use cannabis industry in New Mexico, that there are folks trying to get in the industry who do not feel like they’re getting served,” Brewer told KRQE News 13. “So, it’s definitely a concern to us and something that we want to take seriously and learn more about from folks who are having problems.”
While some applicants feel left out, others have gotten their approval. City Council member and cannabis industry consultant Pat Davis says that in some cases, the CCD isn’t to blame — it’s a lack of experience among applicants.
“Although the process was slow to set up a new division and new rulemaking early on, the rule revisions and adaptations RLD [New Mexico Regulation & Licensing Department, the CCD’s parent organization] has put in place have made it so that we are getting clients through to licensing in some cases in under 30 days after DPS background checks are complete,” Davis told KRQE News 13 in an email.
“The problem, in our experience, is not with RLD. Their process is pretty straightforward now. The larger issue involves applicants who set off to start a business without understanding the rules and requirements or trying to force a non-compliant location into a license. We know how complicated regulatory businesses can be but we’ve also seen that most of the people who are complaining about RLD are complaining because they did not submit all of the required paperwork upfront.”
But Heather Brewer from the CCD does admit that the department is limited by factors such as a relatively small staff.
“The bottom line is: This is a brand-new system and a brand-new industry that has been created from scratch in less than a year. And even at our highest point of staffing in the Cannabis Control division, we have only had 11 people to handle all enforcement, licensing, all legal, all everything,” she says.
The statewide rollout of cannabis licenses hasn’t been entirely smooth given the complexities of the industry and the “from-scratch” and low-staffed licensing division. In January of 2022, KRQE News 13 explored the numbers and discovered that of about 360 applicants for cannabis licenses of various types, just 53 had been approved at the time. KRQE News 13 is still waiting to hear from the CCD about updated numbers.
Of course, many people have gotten approval. And some say they’ve had positive experiences with the CCD.
“I actually had a great experience,” says Sam Holdsworth. “I received my producer license a few months ago after going through the fairly involved process. It wasn’t perfect, but every time I hit a roadblock, I called or emailed and invariably got a response. There were a few internal information glitches that they sorted out. All told, for a first-time process, short staffing, COVID-19 office disruptions, etc., I was very pleasantly surprised that it all worked out as well as it did, at least for me.”
Alyssa Pearson with Dr. Green Organics says it comes down to resources: “The CCD is egregiously underfunded. They’ve had problems with staffing,” Pearson says. “But whenever I get a hold of somebody at the CCD, they’re tremendously helpful. I feel like they’re on my side.”
That being said, Pearson gave an example of how a small license requirement can prove to be a holdup or a hassle. In their initial application, they were told they needed fingerprints for the Department of Public Safety authorization form, but getting those ended up taking longer than expected.
“We ended up going through like a month-long ordeal with the Department of Public Safety to get those background checks finalized, including one of my business partners having to drive to El Paso because they required us to have an ink fingerprint stamp,” Pearson says. “There was only one place in town who did it. They weren’t open on a Friday, so we had to drive from Las Cruces to El Paso to get that done.”
So, a common theme, even among those who have gotten their licenses is that the process is complicated and takes time.
Brewer from the CCD did point out that the division has done work to try to streamline the application process. For example, the division’s website provides checklists for applicants, a link to a YouTube video explaining water rights, and a searchable database so applicants can check on the status of their licenses.
As for some of the applicants still waiting on approval, they say they are seeing some progress. They might not have their licenses yet, but there is still a sense it will happen soon. And they’re optimistic that there’s still business to be had in the coming years.
“I feel that there’s still going to be a lot of opportunity,” the would-be retailer says. “There’s going to be years of opportunity.”
*Editor’s Note: In this story, we use the term “would-be retailer” to indicate someone who’s looking to enter the cannabis industry for profit.