A Los Chavez alfalfa farmer is making the transition to growing medical cannabis in the hopes of continuing to work in agriculture and help people.
Taylor Ortiz told the Valencia County Planning and Zoning Commission as it became more and more difficult to make ends meet with alfalfa, she began looking for more profitable crops.
“I started this adventure with the 2018 Farm Act that allows hemp to be farmed in the U.S. We are importing hemp for CBD oil and fiber,” Ortiz said.
Fully licensed by the state to grow hemp, Ortiz began planting earlier this year, and was eventually contacted by Everest Apothecary, a medical cannabis distributor with four dispensaries in the state, including one in the village of Los Lunas.
“I saw this as a wonderful chance to become part of a company that helps people in New Mexico,” Ortiz said.
Ortiz went before the county Planning and Zoning Commission on July 23 to request a conditional use business license for her medical cannabis growing operation.
Gabe Luna, the county’s interim community development director, told the commissioners he brought the issue before them because it was the first such operation in the county.
“This doesn’t exactly fit a conditional use, but I felt it was best to be as transparent and public as possible about what this was,” Luna said.
He said necessary county departments, such as fire and the sheriff’s office, have been notified of the business and visited the property.
“There are no issues from the departments notified,” he said.
The commissioners, especially Leroy Baca who represents the district the facility will be in, had several questions about the operation of the farm and how it is regulated by the state.
Kenny Vigil, the state’s medical cannabis program director, said there are 34 licensed nonprofit producers across the state. The medical cannabis program in New Mexico is approaching 75,000 patients, Vigil said, and each cannabis producer has at least one grow facility.
The state regulates things at a growing location such as security, ensuring the property has the correct zoning and business licenses, as well as fire inspections done.
“As you can imagine, cannabis is valuable and we emphasize that property be as secure as possible,” he said.
Properties are monitored by security cameras and weapons are not allowed on the property.
“Before a location is approved, it is visited by the department and we work closely with the producers,” Vigil said. “The general public doesn’t have access to the property.”
Vigil said Everest Apothecary was one of about 80 applicants that responded to a request put out by the state in 2015, and was one of 12 companies selected to dispense medical cannabis.
Baca asked if the plants would have a smell.
“Will they effect the air in the area?” Baca asked.
Vigil said producers are required to comply with air quality standards set by the New Mexico Environmental Department.
Commissioner Mark Aguilar said the plants would be contained and away from residents.
“I don’t foresee anyone knowing it’s there unless they are told,” Aguilar said.
Jim Griffin with Everest said the greenhouses the plants would grow in are equipped with carbon filters to abate as much odor as possible.
“When the plants get close to harvest, there is some odor,” Griffin said.
Ortiz said she would be using just less than two acres in three 2,800-square-feet greenhouses to grow the medical cannabis, leaving three acres in alfalfa for her horses.
Griffin said Everest worked successfully with the Los Lunas fire and police departments when the dispensary came to the village.
“We serve about 2,000 patients a month in that store, which surprised us,” he said. “The average age of our customers is 42 years old. They just want to get a good nights sleep or have chronic pain and are trying to get off opioids.”
The New Mexico Department of Health recently approved opioid use disorder as one of the qualifying conditions for enrollment in the states medical cannabis program.
“We don’t operate in a vacuum,” Griffin said. “Everything we do is regulated by the state. New Mexico has the toughest standards in the country. You can’t put something on the shelf without stringent testing.”
Griffin said finished cannabis products would not be sold at Ortiz’s farm. The plants would be harvested and taken to Everest’s main facility in Bernalillo County, where it will be tested, packaged in childproof packaging, then sent to Everest dispensaries.
David Lopez told the commissioners residents on the street south of Ortiz’s property were only recently notified of the facility.
“A greenhouse has to be vented for humidity 365 days a year, so there’s always a smell,” Lopoez said. “We weren’t informed what was going on.
“The governor is pushing to legalize a certain amount of marijuana. You can go plant medical marijuana and then it’s legal. People want to research this and need more information.”
One of the residents on Bombero said she and her husband didn’t feel like they received enough notice and were concerned how the facility would effect their property values.
Luna said letters were sent to adjacent property owners notifying them of the planning and zoning hearing on July 8 — 15 days prior to the hearing — and advertised in the newspaper for two weeks.
He added that property values of land adjacent to agricultural operations could be found through the county assessor’s office.
Future property value was also a concern for Ortiz, since she lives on the property and is the closest resident to the greenhouses.
“I did a lot of research in Colorado and from everything I saw, there was no decrease,” she said.
Other neighbors were concerned about traffic and large trucks coming to the property during harvest. Ortiz said the plants would be harvested by herself and her husband.
“If we do have to hire an employee, it will be through Everest and they will be vetted by the state,” she said. “There won’t be commercial vehicles or semis coming in. It will be very unobtrusive.”
Baca made a motion to approve the conditional use for a business license for Ortiz to grow medical cannabis, with a second by Aguilar. The motion passed 4-0. Commissioner Duana Draszkiewicz was not at the meeting.
Baca said he would visit the facility and report back to the commission, as well as meet with neighbors about their concerns.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.