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Eddy County denies variances for two marijuana dispensaries in Artesia, approves request for grow facility

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For the Daily Press

A presentation on Illegal drug trafficking and cannabis sales were highlights of Tuesday’s Eddy County Commission meeting.

The Eddy County commissioners denied variance requests for two cannabis dispensaries and approved a variance request for a cannabis grow facility, all in Artesia, during the public hearing portion of the meeting.

All three variance requests stemmed from Section 3A of Ordinance O-21-107, which regulates commercial cannabis activities in the county and requires a minimum of 300 feet of separation between cannabis facilities and residences.

The commission approved the request from from Brownsen-Knowingham, LLC, which plans to operate a cannabis grow facility at 7425 Roswell Highway, which is within 199 feet of a residence. The resident in question did not attend the meeting, but Brownsen-Knowingham had stated in its application that the resident was willing to sign off on the facility’s proximity to their home.

Devlin Willingham and Clint Brown, engineers and part-owners of Browsen-Knowingham, spoke at the meeting and said they will be growing 100-200 plants at the facility, will have a carbon filtration system to mitigate odors, and there will be minimal traffic since it is not a dispensary.

“We are trying to start a small business to support our families and make a good impact for the community around us,” Willingham said. “We want to give back to the community that has given back to us.”

The commission denied a variance request from Cave City Cannabis, LLC, which planned to open a dispensary at 1711 N. First St., the former location of First Street Firearms. That lot is within 218 feet of the home of John and Sherry Patman at 1704 N. Roselawn Ave.

The Patmans expressed their opposition to the variance during public comments, citing concerns over a decrease in property value, safety, road usage, and the amount of traffic. Ryan Echavarria and Elizandro Trevino, owners of Cave City Cannabis, also spoke, sharing that they own a location in Carlsbad.

They stated traffic isn’t much of a concern because they only get one or two customers at a time, noted that Allsup’s is also within the same distance from the home, and that the home is in the middle of an industrial area.

The commission also denied a variance request from New Mexico Top Organics – Ultra Health Inc. for a dispensary at 1701 N. First St., the former home of several local restaurants, including Papo Juan’s. That lot is 74 feet from the residence of the Patmans.

Kristina Caffrey, in-house council for Ultra Health, spoke during the comment period.

“Ultra Health has been around since 2011, first producing medical cannabis, then recreational,” she said. “We have 30 stores statewide. We purchased this property at the beginning of 2021 before Eddy County instituted this ordinance.”

She explained that Ultra Health provides individualized service, nothing is on open shelves, and everything is behind glass counters. The Patmans expressed their opposition, stating the building has been broken into and they personally have had two break-ins.

In other business Tuesday, Eddy County Sheriff Mark Cage introduced a presentation by the Pecos Valley Drug Task Force (PVDTF) and spoke highly of the force and its commander, Lenin Leos.

“They have taken drug task force to new levels,” said Cage. “Our drug task force is second to none in this state.”

“The biggest threats, in my opinion, in order, are fentanyl, methamphetamines, cocaine, prescription pills and marijuana,” said Leos in his presentation. “Our focus is the drug traffickers and the drug trafficking organizations. Our priority is to take the cases to a federal level.”

“We are not in the business of putting addicts in jail,” said Cage. “We are in the business of putting traffickers in jail.”

Leos said the Guadalupe El Paso corridor is the drug trafficking path that feeds Carlsbad, but the task force has intercepted drugs from Albuquerque and Midland, Texas, as well. They have taken down suppliers in both Carlsbad and Artesia, with a higher percentage in Carlsbad. Seizures in Eddy County surpass those in Roswell, Lea and Otero counties.

“The canines are so vital in this program,” said Leos. “Without them, we couldn’t make the seizures that we do.”

Leos shared that one of their agents was seriously threatened by a trafficker.

“They’ve done it before,” said Cage. “The Cuban cartel threatened our people before, and we don’t tolerate that. We shut everything down and that becomes the direct priority. Our people will not be threatened.”

The PVDTF recently intercepted 37,000 fentanyl pills.

“Two out of every five fentanyl pills is lethal,” said Leos. “That’s a whole lot of dead people that was stopped from happening.”

Leos explained how users open the fentanyl pills, put the contents on foil, burn it, and inhale the smoke. Fentanyl sells in Eddy County for $4 or $5 per pill. Users smoke up to 50 to 60 pills a day and take up to a gram of meth a day, said Commissioner Sarah Cordova, a nurse practitioner.

“Fentanyl is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and is fast acting,” she said.

Leos said they are seeing massive increases in trafficking. So far in 2023, the PVDTF has seized 114 pounds of methamphetamine, less than an ounce of heroin, 24 firearms, and 113,000 pills of fentanyl.

“When people ask about the increase in seizures, I tell them it all goes back to that unsecured border,” said Leos. “We get beat down by the process. It’s hard to make a good case in New Mexico. It’s been a flood. When fentanyl caught on, that’s all it’s been. That is our main threat drug in our area. It’s not just us. It’s in the nation.”

When asked by a commissioner if the PVDTF ever feels like they’re getting ahead, Leos replied,

“We’re treading water. It’s a bigger picture. As long as they’re letting everything run across the border, absolutely not. They have to give it attention and they’re not. They’re giving it the wrong attention. We’re not gonna get a handle on it until they start clamping down on it.”

Leos explained that the cartels are buying 40 small houses in concentrated cities in Mexico and putting in small fentanyl pill presses.

“They don’t need super labs,” he said. “So, when they lose two or three houses, it doesn’t really affect production or money.”

Commissioner Jon Henry asked how the flow of drugs works.

“The precursor initially when all this started was a Chinese scientist, who was a crook, said we need to be friends with Mexico,” said Leos. “We already send them precursors to methamphetamines. So, let’s teach them about fentanyl and sell them the precursor. With fentanyl, you can turn a kilo into 225,000 pills and they get 1,000 pounds at a time. It’s an international criminal organization.”

Cage said the sherriff’s office plans to deploy two canines and add a third later that will be assigned to the drug task force. He also said they will shift staffing so sherriff’s deputies can work some of the smaller drug cases and take some of the burden off the PVDTF.

“The problem we have is a border that nobody seems to care about,” said Henry in his closing comments. “I think it’s laughable that our congressional delegation, and the ones I have talked to, said we are putting more technology at the crossings. It effects our youth and it affects our families and my anger level gets so high. It’s pathetic that we want to talk about all these things we were so worried about – making sure our kids are safe, and not one dog gone thing is put toward stopping it.”

He went on to speak about New Mexico specifically.

“Not one effect is put forth by this state. States around are doing everything they can to stop it. If I was another state around us I would be pretty fed up with New Mexico as well. Anything we can do to bolster these efforts I think we would love to do because I am tired of seeing it.”

“We are so close to hitting record drug seizure levels halfway through the year and the only thing that has changed is the border,” said Commissioner James Bowen. “Those numbers have to be seen by the state government and the federal government. We’re not even treading water. We’re sinking and fighting to stay afloat and that frustrates me greatly.”

Commissioner Fred Beard chimed in.

“I’d like to take this one step farther. What is going on at the border is intentional. It can be nothing else. It wasn’t happening threeand-a-half years ago. They have put border patrols in a box and tied their hands and won’t fund them. Let’s be honest. Those drugs are coming across that border because we are letting them purposefully.”

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