NM: Santa Fe County Sees ‘Green Rush’ As Number Of Medical Marijuana Cardholders Grows

Photo Credit: Luis Sánchez Saturno

A longtime sufferer of insomnia, Judith Thornburgh has experimented with a variety of natural remedies over the years — hoping to end her real-life nightmare of incessant sleepless nights.

Nothing ever worked.

Nothing, that is, until the 75-year-old tried medical marijuana.

“Forty years of insomnia, and I’m sleeping like a baby,” Thornburgh said Wednesday morning before walking into a medical marijuana dispensary to buy a bag of weed.

“I’m new to this,” she added. “I only got my card this year.”

Thornburgh is part of a growing trend in Santa Fe County, where the number of medical marijuana cardholders increased nearly 43 percent from January 2017 to January 2018, according to statistics from the New Mexico Department of Health.

Of the state’s nearly 48,000 medical marijuana cardholders, about 1 in 10 — or 5,245 — live in Santa Fe County.

After Bernalillo County, which includes the Albuquerque metropolitan area, Santa Fe County has the second-highest number of medical marijuana cardholders in the state.

Budding entrepreneurs have taken notice.

“They call it ‘the green rush’ right now,” said Lane Stevens, manager of Ultra Health’s medical marijuana dispensary on St. Michael’s Drive. “It really is huge.”

New crop of dispensaries

Santa Fe County is home to seven medical marijuana dispensaries, including two that opened for business less than two weeks apart in December. One of those new businesses, Minerva Canna Group on Cerrillos Road, claims to be the largest in the state, at least by square footage.

“As far as operating dispensaries in the state of New Mexico, hands down, we’re the largest,” Minerva manager Katie Bright said.

At least two more medical marijuana dispensaries are on the way.

An eighth dispensary is expected to begin doing business on Early Street, south of downtown, in a matter of days, and a ninth is scheduled to open on Siler Road within a month or so.

“I have a lot of people asking me that live on Agua Fría and like my old school friends, they’re like, ‘Hita, why don’t you open over here?’ ” said Minka Ingersoll, co-founder of Kure Cannabis, a medical marijuana dispensary on North Guadalupe Street that opened in December and plans to branch out with a smaller facility on Siler Road.

The new dispensary on Early Street, called CG Corrigan, will be located just a block north of an already existing dispensary.

“We’re not here to sell more; we’re here to help more people,” said Tom Wilkie, CG Corrigan’s chief operating officer.

Both medical marijuana patients and people who work in the industry see the swell of cardholders and dispensaries as a sign that New Mexico is moving closer to legalization of marijuana for recreational use, similar to the neighboring state of Colorado. Polls consistently show strong support for marijuana legalization in New Mexico.

But whether existing medical marijuana dispensaries could get into recreational sales would depend on how the state would structure such a program. Other states that have legalized recreational marijuana generally have given existing businesses the first crack at recreational sales.

It’s an issue some say will be debated in New Mexico in the near future.

“I think that both New Mexico and the U.S. are on the road to fully legalizing cannabis. There’s 29 states that have passed medical cannabis legislation. That’s already over half of the U.S.,” Wilkie said.

“Is legalizing good? I think it would be good for all citizens to have another legal medicinal choice besides opioids,” he said. “Medicine is something personal. It should be our choice.”

For now, the new crop of medical marijuana dispensaries has sparked concern among some business owners and employees about an oversaturated market, but all say they’re confident the quality of their product and customer service will keep their doors open.

“All of a sudden I do worry a little bit about what that’s going to look like, how it’s going to even out, level out in the next couple of months,” said Jennifer Guadalupi, manager of Fruit of the Earth Organics Natural Health, a CBD shop connected to Fruit of the Earth’s medical marijuana dispensary on Early Street.

CBD, or cannabidiol, is what’s known as a cannabinoid, a chemical component that naturally occurs in both marijuana and hemp. It is nonpsychoactive. In other words, it won’t get you high. CBD products, which most medical marijuana dispensaries offer in their stores, can be purchased without a medical marijuana card. Products range from lotions and topical salves to dog treats.

While Fruit of the Earth Organics has a lot of repeat customers, the opening of another dispensary nearby is cause for concern.

“I know our boss is nervous about the dispensary that’s opening just literally a stone’s throw down the road,” Guadalupi said. “But we’ll see. Who knows what they’re going to offer that’s totally different from what she offers.”

Whether there is enough business to go around remains to be seen, but visits to several dispensaries in Santa Fe indicate the demand is high.

“We get new patients every single day,” said Stevens, manager of Ultra Health’s medical marijuana dispensary.

“As a matter of fact, since we’ve been sitting here, we just registered a new patient, and that’s probably the second one today, and we’ve only been open for about an hour and a half,” he said Tuesday morning. “We usually get anywhere from six to 10, sometimes 15, new patient registers here at this shop a day.”

At each dispensary visited by The New Mexican, there was a steady stream of customers, no matter the time of day.

“In my eyes, it’s green, it grows naturally. Why not use it?” said Adele Baca, a 56-year-old Santa Fe woman who obtained her medical marijuana card a few months ago.

Dispensaries are driving part of the growth in cardholders, facilitating appointments at their businesses between would-be patients and doctors with prescribing authority.

At Fruit of the Earth Organics on Wednesday, people waited 30 minutes or more in a makeshift waiting room to meet with Dr. Florian Birkmayer, a psychiatrist, with the intent of obtaining a medical marijuana card or getting a renewal.

Under the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, patients must meet at least one of 21 qualifying conditions to obtain a medical marijuana card, such as cancer, epilepsy and HIV. The vast majority of patients, however, have qualified for a medical marijuana card for PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, and severe chronic pain.

Among them is Jose Salaz, 53, a recovering alcoholic who has served time in the penitentiary. Salaz said he qualified for a medical marijuana card in 2011 because he was diagnosed with PTSD.

“I’ve been smoking cannabis for a long time, but what messed me up was the drinking, the hard liquor, the whiskey,” Salaz said during his one-on-one consultation with Birkmayer.

“Alcohol kills more people than all the wars in the world,” Birkmayer responded.

“There’s a little saying,” Salaz told the doctor. “If you have a group of people getting drunk, there’s going to be a fight, there’s going to be a rumble. But if you have a group of people smoking medical cannabis …”

“The worst that will happen is they’ll all start giggling,” Birkmayer interrupted, laughing.

High demand

Despite the hallucinogenic effects, medical marijuana is sober, serious business.

The city of Santa Fe doesn’t track how much revenue the industry generates at the local level, but the state alone pocketed $2.91 million in relicensure fees from licensed nonprofit producers last year, according to the state Medical Cannabis Program’s License and Compliance Division.

“The demand is growing,” said Stevens, the 29-year-old manager of Ultra Health’s medical marijuana dispensary on St. Michael’s Drive.

“I believe it to be the education,” he said. “People are being more educated on the benefits of medicinal cannabis, so the more people are educated and know the benefits and what it can actually do for you, the more people are actually changing their way of thinking as opposed to just listening to the reefer madness and all the false propaganda.”

According to the state, the Medical Cannabis Program was created under the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act. The purpose of the law “is to allow the beneficial use of medical cannabis in a regulated system for alleviating symptoms caused by debilitating medical conditions and their medical treatments.”

Stevens said most people who have a medical marijuana card genuinely need one. But he acknowledged some people have figured out how to cheat the system.

“Probably more than what I’d like to believe, but from what I’ve seen in the shop and dealing with patients, a lot less than you would think,” he said.

Miracle drug

Stevens said medical marijuana works wonders on people with a variety of ailments. His clientele ranges “anywhere from 18 [years old] all the way up to their 80s.”

Ultra Health, considered the biggest medical marijuana player in the business in New Mexico, offers a wide array of products, from smokable bud and marijuana-infused chocolates to suppositories.

“There’s people that come through here that have never tried it in their life,” Stevens said. “But they’re just at a crossroads. They need to do something, anything, to help them.”

Sam Atakra, who obtained his medical marijuana card about a month and a half ago, said he was looking for a remedy to his insomnia.

“I’ve had insomnia since I was like a little kid,” he said. “I can sleep like two to four hours at the most on any given day.”

Atakra said the Indica strain of medical marijuana that he buys now helps him go to sleep and stay there.

“The funny thing is I actually quit smoking marijuana when I was 18 because I moved up to Humboldt County, Calif., which is one of the biggest marijuana producers in the entire world,” he said. “I had smoked pot up until then, but I didn’t like a lot of the people who were in the marijuana industry. I thought they were kind of dangerous, so I just stopped smoking pot.”

Atakra said he will still smoke marijuana occasionally, but he prefers edibles and teas.

“This tastes like gelatin,” he said Thursday night after popping a green, bottle-cap shaped gummy candy into his mouth at his home in southwest Santa Fe. “It’s 10 milligrams per gummy.”

By 9:30 p.m., he said he was feeling “a little drowsy.”

“The tea should kick in in like half an hour,” he said via Facebook. “I did 70 milligrams of THC, which is standard for me on any given night.”

Thornburgh, the 75-year-old who also uses medical marijuana to treat her insomnia, said a little medicine goes a long way. Since she started using medical marijuana, she said she’s been able to sleep throughout the night.

“It’s just like a miracle,” she said. “Can you imagine? Forty years [of insomnia]?”

Thornburgh said she hadn’t considered medical marijuana until it was suggested by a friend.

“You can’t help but hear about it all over the place,” she said. “Everyone is talking about how it’s just changing their lives for the better.”