Retailers hope legalization helps dispel the age-old stigma attached to cannabis


It’s evil. It’s devilish. It’s no different from hardcore drugs.

Paul Gonzales, the store manager of SWOP’s Corrales location, checks his computer system in getting ready for the launching of recreational cannabis sales in New Mexico, which begins Friday, April 1, 2022. (Matt Hollinshead/Observer)

Those are some of the common stigmas about marijuana that cannabis retailers have heard time and again, echoed from prior generations.

Now that recreational cannabis sales in New Mexico start Friday, retailers say they hope that legalization of marijuana for recreation will help dispel such stigmas.

“We’re excited to be able to open that up to everybody and not make such a devil out of marijuana,” said Dranna Insausti, the regional manager for SWOP’s Albuquerque area locations. “I think it’s come a long way from some people being able to accept it as not an evil drug. We’re really happy to be part of dispelling some of those misconceptions, but then also just welcoming recreational customers with open arms.”

For those 21 and older, possession of up to 2 ounces of cannabis and growing up to six mature cannabis plants for personal use was legalized on June 29, 2021.

Friday’s the first day recreational sales begin, in which medical patients and adults 21 and older can purchase cannabis legally. Prior to Friday, a valid medical cannabis card was required to obtain cannabis.

Friday marks ‘true end to cannabis prohibition’

Marissa Novel, chief marketing officer of Ultra Health, said Friday is a historic moment because it’s the “true end to cannabis prohibition” in the state. As a result, customers have a safe space to do buy marijuana without having to drive to Colorado or turn to illicit markets, she said.

“That’s huge in de-stigmatizing cannabis because it allows those who are cannabis users or those are canna-curious to enter a commercial storefront that is just as safe as your neighborhood Walgreens or Target even,” she said.

Novel said while Friday’s the first step to where people don’t have to feel “guilty or ashamed, or like they’re doing something wrong,” it’ll also open the door for communities and the general population to see cannabis businesses as “real community partners” rather than an illegal business.

Cannabis stores in the state initially served those dealing with chronic pain, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder and other debilitating ailments.

While cannabis stores must adhere to state regulations on medical and recreational supply, including cannabis plants and edibles, and quantity of purchases, they’re preparing for the increase in potential customers.

“There’s a lot of competition in Albuquerque, dispensary-wise. We’re just excited to be part of that,” Insausti said.

Categorization of cannabis is ‘bogus’

Rachael Speegle, the CEO and co-owner of the Verdes Foundation, said that while any product can be abused, cannabis has long been used as a scapegoat when it comes to addressing addiction.

“We can be addicted to food, we can be addicted to sex, we can be addicted to working out, we can be addicted to movies, and we’re not villainizing these activities,” she said. “People can become dependent on cannabis the same way that they can become dependent on anything else in their life. I think we need to look at the root cause of that instead of going after the substance.”

“This categorization of the plant is bogus,” she said, adding that cannabis doesn’t deserve to be in a category other than an herbal remedy.

Ashly Nichols, a budtender at SWOP’s Corrales location, checks on the some of the store’s products from behind the counter on Wednesday, March 30, 2022. Recreational cannabis sales in New Mexico begin on Friday, April 1, 2022. (Matt Hollinshead/Observer)

An alternate treatment?

Novel said cannabis helps provide an outlet for people seeking different therapeutic products from traditional pharmaceuticals, or in finding a product that’s a little less harsh on them than tobacco or alcohol.

“Once people come into the store, purchase cannabis and see how high-quality the products that we have are, they’ll start to bridge the gap in their minds to say, ‘Oh OK, cannabis is actually an alternative to having a glass of whiskey in the evening or buying a six-pack at the liquor store,’ ” she said.

Novel also said she expects more “canna-curious” customers who are dealing with insomnia or nausea to come to cannabis stores instead of going to a doctor’s office.

Speegle also said that while the Verdes Foundation, which has dispensaries in Northeast Albuquerque, Rio Rancho and Santa Fe, cannot guide people in changing their pharmaceutical plans, it can identify when a person can talk to their doctor about using cannabis as treatment.

A positive ripple effect?

Although there’s been some pushback from communities like Corrales, one of SWOP’s seven store sites, Insausti said bringing customers in will also help introduce them to the village’s restaurants and other establishments.

Insausti said the state’s tax rate on recreational cannabis, which is 12 percent, will bring greatly needed money back to the community.

Ultra Health, which has more than 30 cannabis store locations across New Mexico, has community support and is involved in some legislation processes presented to local governing bodies, Novel said.

All three stores plan to continue to educate the public about cannabis, from the medical pluses to the misconceptions. Speegle, who’s also an emergency room nurse, said her Verdes’ sales rollout is slow enough to where products are adequately tested and appropriately labeled, and that they’re distributed in a way that doesn’t harm people. Such steps are taken because cannabis plants can grow mold, bacteria and yeast over time, and the THC potency in edibles can shift because of ingredients it interacts with, she said.

The state’s latest measures on cannabis will help “change the narrative that this is equally as dangerous to the drugs that are up-heaving our community,” Speegle said.