Pubdate: Mon, 06 Jun 2016
Source: Albuquerque Journal (NM)
Copyright: 2016 Albuquerque Journal
Author: Olivier Uyttebrouck, Journal Staff Writer


ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Rachael Speegle, 34, left a full-time job as a
critical care nurse last year to work at an Albuquerque medical
marijuana dispensary and growing operation started by her husband.

Speegle quickly discovered that people who came to the Verdes
Foundation dispensary in Albuquerque had lots of questions that called
for her nursing skills.

"Their questions were so simple," she said. For example: "How do I
talk to my doctor about this? Why does my nausea feel better when I
smoke it than when I eat it?"

Verdes is one of 13 licensed nonprofit producers that operate 16
dispensaries in Bernalillo County. Statewide, 23 licensed producers
operate 37 dispensaries in 16 counties.

That number is certain to grow in coming months as existing licensed
producers, including the Verdes Foundation, open new locations. In
addition, 12 nonprofits licensed by the New Mexico Department of
Health last year are setting up new growing facilities and
dispensaries around the state.

Dispensaries also are starting to operate more like ordinary
businesses. Many make their names and logos visible on major
commercial streets and shopping centers. Patients don't need to press
a buzzer and stare down a security guard to enter the Verdes
Foundation dispensary, and they can bring their children and pets inside.

"We want people to feel comfortable, like they're going to Walgreens,"
Speegle said.

Dispensaries and growing operations also are becoming significant
employers that paid $3 million in salaries and other compensation in
the first quarter of this year, up from $2.3 million during the same
period in 2015.

Rapid growth

"We're all trying to get our production facilities up and running,"
said David C. Romero White, president of Organtica, one of the 12
nonprofits licensed last year.

Darren White, right, with his son Darren "Indy" White II, are
renovating leased retail space on Menaul NE for a nonprofit dispensary
named PurLife, opening this summer. PurLife began growing cannabis
earlier this year in Albuquerque.

The startup process for new cannabis-growing operations and
dispensaries is difficult and time-consuming, even for Romero White,
who has years of experience working for other nonprofit producers.

"It's very tough  especially for the producers who are outside the
Albuquerque market  and a little slow," he said.

Organtica plans to have open a growing facility in August and a
flagship dispensary by October, both in Albuquerque. The nonprofit
also plans to open an undetermined number of dispensaries in
communities outside Albuquerque.

The medical cannabis market has expanded rapidly in New Mexico over
the past year.

The number of licensed patients who legally purchased medical pot more
than tripled, from 18,062 in the first quarter of 2015 to 55,016 in
the same period this year.

Total receipts from sales of medical pot nearly doubled in that time,
from $5.7 million in the first quarter of 2015 to $10 million in the
first quarter this year.

Growers say they expect the rapid growth in demand to continue for the
foreseeable future, due in part to greater acceptance of marijuana in
New Mexico and across the U.S.

Medical marijuana is legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia,
but several states have a higher penetration of medical cannabis
patients than New Mexico.

For example, Colorado has about 19.8 medical cannabis patients per
1,000 residents, or nearly double New Mexico's rate of 9.4 per 1,000,
according to a March 1 report on, a website that tracks
marijuana issues and trends.

Maine, Michigan, Oregon, Washington and California all have rates of
18 per 1,000 residents or higher. Those data suggest that the number
of licensed patients here could grow substantially, Romero White said.

"Just as fast as it seems to be growing now, I think that the growth
will continue at this pace," he said.

Verdes Foundation plans to open a second location this month in Rio
Rancho with a 1,600-square-foot dispensary  about four times the size
of their Albuquerque dispensary. For now, Verdes serves about 300
patients a day in its cramped dispensary with an attached growing
facility near San Pedro and Paseo del Norte NE.

Business at Verdes ramped up quickly when doctors began referring
their patients, many of whom are older clients with little experience
using medical marijuana, Speegle said.

"We started the nursing services as a practical decision, but it
turned into one of the best business decisions we could have made,"
she said. The nonprofit today employs 32, including two registered
nurses in addition to Speegle.

Speegle said she expects that New Mexicans will consider a ballot item
within two years to legalize recreational use of marijuana.
Recreational use would not diminish the need for nursing services
because people would continue to use cannabis to self-medicate, she

"The best thing about a recreational model is that people will be able
to walk into a store and get what they need right now," she said.

Meeting demand

For Verdes Foundation, the challenge is growing enough cannabis to
keep up with demand, given the state's limit of 450 plants at one time
per growing facility, said Speegle and husband, Eric Speegle.

Verdes expects demand to exceed the nonprofit's production limits this
summer, Eric Speegle said. To meet demand, Verdes plans to begin
growing larger plants with bigger yields, he said.

"We signed up 23 new patients yesterday and I'm scared to death about
what that means a month from now," Rachael Speegle said the day after
Memorial Day.

Another nonprofit planning to open a new dispensary this summer is
PurLife, one of the 12 producers licensed last year.

PurLife is renovating leased retail space at 3821 Menaul NE, where it
plans to open its first dispensary within 30 days, said Darren White,
CEO of PurLife. The nonprofit began growing cannabis earlier this year
at a 16,000-square-foot production facility in Albuquerque.

The former Bernalillo County sheriff, and state and Albuquerque public
safety director  who resigned from the administration of Gov. Gary
Johnson because he disagreed with Johnson's support for legalizing
marijuana  said he became a convert to medical cannabis about two
years ago as an alternative to opioid painkillers to treat chronic
pain from knee and back injuries he experienced as a police officer
and U.S. Army soldier.

"A steady diet of consuming painkillers is not quality of life," White
said in an interview on May 27. "The narcotic painkillers, they knock
you out."
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