Months after Albuquerque officials hammered out land-use provisions for the budding recreational marijuana industry, Bernalillo County is ready to do the same.
Leaders are now weighing a proposed zoning code update that outlines where businesses can grow and sell cannabis within the county’s unincorporated areas. The County Commission voted Tuesday to introduce and publish the proposed rules, and could make a final decision as early as Dec. 14.
“It’s something brand new, and we want to see how close to right we get it the first time,” Commission Chairwoman Charlene Pyskoty said during Tuesday’s meeting, adding that leaders always have the option to make future changes.
County zoning administrator Nicholas Hamm told the commission the pending proposal aims to “treat cannabis like any other product in the county.” For example, it permits recreational sales in most commercial zones, as long as the shops are at least 300 feet away from schools and day cares.
“If a zone allows for a special type activity for another type of product, this ordinance will allow a similar cannabis activity to occur in that zone,” Hamm said.
The county’s proposal also permits outdoor commercial cannabis cultivation in agricultural zones, though it does set limits based on property size. Commercial growers can use only 25% of lots 1 acre or smaller, but up to 75% of sites larger than 5 acres. Any growing beyond those caps must take place indoors.
Commissioner Debbie O’Malley said she hoped the county also could create a permit for cannabis processing on agricultural sites as a way to help smaller operators stay competitive in the market, though Commissioner Steven Michael Quezada said the county must consider the effect on surrounding neighborhoods and businesses.
“We want (cannabis businesses) to be harmonious with everybody else, but the plain fact of this industry is it has an odor, and we’re going to have to really look at what we bring forward when we’re looking at manufacturing, processing and growing,” he said.
The rules also address cannabis consumption.
They would ban outdoor cannabis smoking at licensed businesses, restricting smoking to indoor spaces with proper ventilation.
The proposed regulations permit medical cannabis consumption in more zones than recreational consumption – a distinction one local cannabis industry advocate said makes little sense.
“Why are we restigmatizing this?” New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ben Lewinger said in a Journal interview.”We’re talking about something legal for adults over 21.”
Lewinger also disagrees with the outdoor smoking prohibition and some other proposed provisions. He said his organization would make formal comments to the commission prior to its final vote, but that the current proposal is more reasonable than he’s seen in some other jurisdictions.
“The approach Bernalillo County is taking seems less prohibitive than that in other counties, which is good. Kudos for that,” he said. “(But) we still have some work to do.”
The county’s rules would apply only to unincorporated parts of Bernalillo County, such as the South Valley and East Mountains.
Albuquerque has already established zoning rules for recreational cannabis operations inside city limits – a process that sparked some debate over the summer.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller wanted to stop new marijuana shops from opening in certain areas – including along much of Central Avenue – and also proposed specific standards related to cannabis shop operating hours and signage. The City Council mostly rejected the attempt to regulate cannabis differently than other businesses, though it did pass a rule that addressed density concerns by making new shops go through a public hearing to open within 600 feet of another cannabis retailer.