A lot is riding on the state’s new Cannabis Control Division.
Created when New Mexico legalized recreational marijuana for adults last year, the fledgling agency has been handed the responsibility of setting the groundwork for a new industry elected officials sold as being a boon for the state, from creating jobs to raising revenue.
A question from the start — and one that has resurfaced at the Roundhouse — is whether the agency has enough money to carry out the work.
Competing budget proposals have thrust the issue into the spotlight.
The governor’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2023 calls for $6.5 million for the division; it would receive $2.6 million less for personnel under the Legislative Finance Committee’s spending plan.
Agency officials are urging lawmakers to approve the bigger budget.
“The stakes in this division are extremely high,” Victor Reyes, deputy superintendent of the state Regulation and Licensing Department, which oversees the division, told members of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee on Tuesday.
“If we are going to wish to see the revenue generators to the state of New Mexico, we must be able to have a fully operational division,” Reyes said. “Unfortunately, what is included in the LFC recommendation does not get us anywhere near the point of being able to operate a functioning division that’s going to be able to meet the health, safety, welfare requirements, the licensure requirements I think you all deserve and expect.”
The agency is expected to make a pitch for additional funding when it goes before the Senate Finance Committee on Monday.
Heather Brewer, a division spokeswoman, said the additional money sought in the governor’s proposed budget would fund 35 new positions.
“The large chunk of those positions would be compliance officers, the folks responsible for enforcing rules and auditing and inspecting newly licensed cannabis operations, and the professional staff that enforce the packaging standards, as well as implementing, maintaining and supporting the track and trace program,” she said. “This is the seed-to-sale program that we have in place, BioTrack, so that every little piece of what is legally defined as cannabis under the [law] is tracked from the time it goes into the ground until the time it ends up in the consumers’ hands.”
Other jobs are related to information technology and legal issues.
“We also need inspectors,” Brewer said. “This is particularly important because we’re going from 34 licensed cannabis producers under the medical program, when it was exclusively at [the state Department of Health], to now we have more than 300 applications pending [for recreational marijuana licenses], and 45 have already been licensed. We’re looking at about a tenfold increase in the number of entities and licensees that the Cannabis Control Division will have to work with, oversee and support … so there’s a huge need for additional funding there.”
The Legislative Finance Committee budget proposal considers the total number of vacancies in the department.
“Right now, they could fill about 35 [positions],” said Eric Chenier, an analyst for the committee.
The division currently employs about 10 people, though staff in other areas of the department also are providing support to the agency.
“The staff we have are amazing,” Brewer said. “They are working hard. They’re working nights and weekends. They are taking on the daunting task of setting up an entirely new regulatory structure and implementing that under a very tight deadline and intense scrutiny from the public.”
But the agency needs the budget increase for additional staffing “in order for [existing employees] to get the support that they need to continue and sustain the pace and build on the success that we’ve already had,” she added.
During the House Appropriations and Finance Committee meeting, some lawmakers expressed support for giving the agency additional resources.
Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, said insufficient funding for the agency has been an issue from the start.
“We knew when we funded the cannabis program that we didn’t have enough money,” she said. “It’s come back to get us. I think I normally listen to the LFC … but I think this agency is clearly unfunded with the job description it has.”
Under New Mexico’s Cannabis Regulation Act, sales of adult-use cannabis must begin no later than April 1.