Pot-for-profit industry overruns New Mexico

New Mexico is known for hot air balloons, beautiful national parks and an enviable arts scene. And now we can add a fourth to that famous list: marijuana. We shouldn’t be proud of that.

New Mexico has the most marijuana dispensaries per capita in the country — more than 26 per 100,000 people — compared to second-place Oregon at 16.5 per 100,000.

We have to slow down. If we don’t, our children will suffer.

As the for-profit marijuana industry takes root in the Land of Enchantment, we must remain vigilant to counter their efforts and prevent substance abuse.

New Mexicans face the rapid expansion of a marijuana industry focused solely on maximizing their profits. This story usually doesn’t end well. A 24-hour pharmacy with two drive-through windows will open in Chaparral next month. The industry is also working to open more consumption lounges. The marijuana industry, like the tobacco and alcohol industries, will always prioritize profit over public health.

The density of pharmacies is of particular concern from a public health perspective. High youth use in New Mexico is likely to worsen at a time when the state’s 12- to 17-year-olds already have the second-highest rate of marijuana use in the nation. This also aligns with the latest research: Studies have found that eleventh graders are more likely to use marijuana if they live in communities with a high density of dispensaries. Another study found that opening licensed pharmacies within four miles of one’s home was associated with heavy use by young adults.

Minors are more likely to become marijuana users in states with legal marijuana than in states without. In fact, legalization has been linked to a 25 percent increase in marijuana use disorder, or marijuana addiction, among youth.

In addition to more youth using marijuana, many others use it accidentally. In October 2022, Susan Smolinske, director of the New Mexico Poison and Drug Information Center, warned of an increase in young children accidentally ingesting edibles. Noting that the agency had received 11 cases of children using marijuana in the 11 days prior to the interview, she added that marijuana-related calls to the emergency room had increased by 1,000%.

No wonder why. Dispensaries market and sell products that are almost indistinguishable from non-marijuana products — the only difference is that they can send your kids to the hospital. For example, the “menu” at Albuquerque’s Best Daze Dispensary includes marijuana-infused gummies, lollipops, candy bars, chocolate candies, honey, syrup, soda and seltzer.

Awareness campaigns targeted at youth are needed to raise awareness of the risks of marijuana use, as well as the dangers associated with the use of dabs, concentrates, waxes, and other high-potency products advertised by dispensaries. The legalization of marijuana — which normalizes the drug and reduces risk perceptions associated with it — will certainly make the challenge of preventing marijuana use even more difficult.

Our legislators need to use this year’s budget surplus to push sensible education campaigns before it’s too late for another generation. Legislators should enact a 15% THC concentration limit that would protect the mental health of users by restricting today’s increasingly pure and dangerous forms of marijuana. Although marijuana is now “legal” in New Mexico, the legislature can and should still pass sane legislation that promotes public health, not private profit.

Luke Niforatos lives in Colorado. Smart Approaches to Marijuana is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science-based drug policy.