SANTA FE, N.M. – New Mexico brought recreational marijuana sales to the doorstep of Texas, the largest prohibition state, as the movement toward broad legalization sweeps up even more of the American West.
Anyone 21 and older can purchase up to 2 ounces (57 grams) of marijuana — enough to roll about 60 joints or cigarettes — or comparable amounts of liquid concentrates and edible treats. First-day sales reached about $2 million by early Friday evening.
New Mexico has nurtured a medical marijuana program since 2007 under tight restrictions. Friday's launch still represents a sea change for local law enforcement, taxation officials, commercial growers and residents who thought full-blown legal access to pot would never come.
At a Santa Fe dispensary, customers said they were thrilled to buy openly and cut black market ties.
“When they legalized it here, I didn't need my guy anymore," said Devin Killoy, a painter and handyman in clothes speckled with white.
Antonio Rodriguez, a 38-year-old grocery worker, said he was content to pay taxes on recreational cannabis: “I want everyone to be legit, even if it's more expensive.”
Would-be marijuana farmers are bidding for water rights and learning to raise the crops, as experienced medical cannabis producers ramp up production and add retail showrooms.
New Mexico is among 18 states, including neighboring Arizona and Colorado as well as the entire West coast, that have legalized pot for recreational use, with implications for cannabis tourism and conservative Texas, where legalization efforts have made little headway.
A marijuana decriminalization bill won U.S. House approval Friday, but is unlikely to pass the Senate. Republicans said potent pot is impairing users, and characterized marijuana as a gateway to opioids and other dangerous substances.
In Clovis, a high plains New Mexico town of about 40,000 residents less than 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Texas, Earl Henson and two business partners pooled resources to convert a former gun shop and shooting range into a cannabis store and companion growing room at a Main Street address.
“I can't explain how happy I am,” said Henson, a former real estate agent who says his affection for marijuana was a burden. He is harvesting the first crop for a store called Earl and Tom's. “These cities that are near Texas, for the next two years it is going to change their economies.”
In the state capital of Santa Fe, marijuana is on sale across from the city's newly built visitors center on a block lined with galleries, clothing boutiques and restaurants.
LeRoy Roybal, manager of a downtown Santa Fe store for producer and dispensary chain Minerva Canna, hopes pot stigma quickly fades.
“We're liberating a lot of hearts and souls," he said. “It's going to be like getting a cup of joe at Starbucks."
Supportive lawmakers hope legalization will eliminate black markets, boost employment and provide stable new sources of government income.
Consumers initially will rely heavily on 35 legacy marijuana businesses that took root over the past 15 years. Regulators have issued more than 230 new marijuana business licenses to growers, retailers and manufacturing facilities for extracts and edibles.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who toured a busy store Friday, says legalization responds to popular demands and is generating small business opportunities.
“This is what consumers want,” said Lujan Grisham, up for reelection in November. “We have the potential for 11,000 more workers, jobs in places where young people can work and stay, like Torrance County and Texico and Tucumcari and Raton.”
Local governments can’t ban cannabis businesses entirely, though they can restrict locations and hours. Public consumption carries a $50 fine.
Business licenses for cannabis cafes or lounges haven’t been requested yet — leaving people to indulge at home or designated hotels, casinos and cigar shops.
In Sunland Park, flanked by the Rio Grande and U.S.-Mexico border fencing, Mayor Javier Perea says marijuana retailers can set up across the small city of just 17,000 residents. He said about 30 businesses have sought authorization, banking on tourism from nearby El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez in Mexico.
Perea hopes the industry creates economic opportunity and tax income to bolster city services. Local governments will receive a minority share of the state's 12% excise tax on recreational marijuana sales, along with a share of additional sales taxes. Medical cannabis is tax-free.
“The one thing that we are going to struggle with is, we are going to run out of buildings" for new businesses, he said.
Legal experts warn that New Mexico customers who return home to other states could risk criminal penalties, arrest and incarceration — most notably in Texas.
Paul Armento, deputy director of the drug policy group NORML, said Texas is among the leading states for marijuana-possession arrests, and that having concentrates there is punishable by up to two years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Marijuana possession, use or sale also remains federally illegal — a standard that applies across vast tracts of federal land and Indian Country in New Mexico.
New Mexico’s cannabis industry, still reliant on cash to avoid running afoul of federal law, is gaining access to banking services through an alternative certification system for credit unions and banks supported by state attorneys general.
The state also plans to underwrite $5 million in low-interest loans to small cannabis businesses that can't access traditional credit.
Lawmakers have sought to reverse harm from marijuana criminalization on minority communities and poor households by automatically dismissing or erasing past cannabis convictions, encouraging social and economic diversity in employment and reducing financial barriers for startup businesses.
The state's micro-business license to cultivate up to 200 plants for a flat $1,000 fee is attracting first-time commercial growers, such as recently retired U.S. Marine Kyle Masterson and wife Ivy, a Hispanic Army veteran with business consulting experience. They are raising three children and making a mid-life career shift into cannabis.
The Mastersons, residents of suburban Rio Rancho, searched more remote areas for an affordable building to cultivate high-grade marijuana under lights, settling on a vacant former movie theater in tiny Cuba, a village near the Jemez Mountains.
“It felt right, it felt good and out of a vision of what we could do,” said Kyle Masterson, who served in four combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. “We're used to working out of austere environments without much direction and doing our best.”
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow him on Twitter.