Marijuana buyers from Texas fuel a ‘Little Amsterdam’ in New Mexico

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Marijuana buyers from Texas fuel a ‘Little Amsterdam’ in New Mexico

In a desert valley along the Rio Grande in New Mexico, the city of Sunland Park has generally offered few amenities for its roughly 17,000 residents. 

No large grocery store. Few shops. Little to offer those uninterested in the racetrack casino or a hike to the gigantic cross of Cristo Del Rey that looms from a nearby mountaintop.

But for Texans who live in El Paso, just over the state line, Sunland Park has lately become a regular destination. The reason: marijuana.

Cars with Texas plates flock regularly to the many cannabis dispensaries — one with a drive-thru, another offering discounts on “Texas Tuesday” — that have sprung up since New Mexico began legal recreational sales in 2022.

In Texas, recreational marijuana is still illegal.

Legalization in New Mexico vaulted Sunland Park, a bedroom community with an aging industrial zone in a landscape of rock and sand, almost overnight into the top ranks of the nation’s marijuana boom towns, many of which have emerged on the borders of states with sharply different laws. Some locals have started calling it the Dubai of marijuana, the mayor said, because of all the new investment; others describe it as Little Amsterdam.

“It has been an explosion,” said Teresa Rios, 58, who has lived in Sunland Park for two decades and lamented the rapid transformation, including the closure of a place where she used to get her nails done, even as cannabis sellers proliferate. “I’d like to see a nice store, a pharmacy, a gas station that’s close to my home. Instead, all we see is cannabis.”

Dispensaries have filled empty stores, vacant strip malls and the husks of former warehouses and car dealerships. Signs advertise yet more dispensaries that are “coming soon” to join the 16 already active there, according to state records. Green balloon figures offering “Marijuana” in large letters dip and dance on the roadside.

Across New Mexico, only Albuquerque, a city many many times larger, sells more recreational marijuana than Sunland Park, which had nearly $4 million in sales in November alone. But Sunland Park has Texas — and in particular El Paso, a city of nearly 700,000, just over the state line.

“El Paso is bigger than Albuquerque,” said Miguel Martinez, explaining why he and his partners decided to locate their dispensary, Besos, in Sunland Park, and to advertise on a billboard near an El Paso shopping center.

“Of course there’s the issue for Texans — people come in all the time and ask, ‘Is this legal in Texas?’ Absolutely not,” Martinez said, standing by a display of green cannabis arranged in clear plastic cubes, near screens offering discounts for Texans. Of course, he added, “I can’t control what anybody does outside of the store.”

As a town on the border with Mexico, Sunland Park is the kind of place where policies set by faraway lawmakers are readily apparent — and not just the ones on marijuana.

Recently, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas had his state’s National Guard troops place concertina wire along the international border with Mexico, an effort to hold back migrants trying to cross illegally; then he extended it to the state line between Texas and New Mexico, whose governor, a Democrat, has both expressed concern about the high number of crossings and sought to protect the rights of migrant children.

The state line also represents a stark divide on abortion. Most abortion is illegal in Texas, but billboards in El Paso advertise abortion services available at clinics in Sunland Park and in nearby Las Cruces. Adrienne Mansanares, CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, said the disparity was apparent to her during a recent visit to the organization’s clinic in Las Cruces. “The waiting room was full of people from Texas,” she said.

Texas law enforcement officers cannot stop women from seeking abortions in New Mexico. Nor have they made much effort to stem the tide of marijuana arriving in the other direction from Sunland Park, even as a rising number of young people bringing vape cartridges to schools in El Paso has become a concern.

“If we catch you, we catch you,” said Ryan Urrutia, the patrol commander for the El Paso County Sheriff’s office.

Nicolás Hernández, 43, an El Paso resident who was helping a friend fix up a property in Sunland Park on a recent afternoon, said concern about how the Texas police would respond to all the Texans bringing marijuana home from New Mexico had faded. “All my friends that have done it, they were super paranoid the first time,” he said. “And by the second or third time, they don’t even think about it.”

Similarly situated towns have seen their marijuana economies thrive, including places like Ontario, Oregon, along the state line with Idaho. On the other hand, New Mexico’s legalization put a damper on the pot business in places like Trinidad, Colorado, which previously attracted cross-border customers coming from New Mexico and Oklahoma.

The boomtown opportunities are narrowing: With Ohio voting last November to adopt a program of legal recreational marijuana sales, the majority of Americans will soon live in states where cannabis can be legally purchased.

“These are temporary conditions,” said Aaron Smith, CEO of the National Cannabis Industry Association.

Still, with Texas showing no signs of moving toward legalization, new dispensaries continue to open in Sunland Park.

At one, workers were putting the finishing touches on what would be the city’s first legal consumption site — similar to what is commonly found in the real Amsterdam, in the Netherlands — so Texans could stay and smoke. As it is, consuming marijuana in public, or in cars, is illegal in New Mexico.

For now, Texans mostly just turn around and go home. “The recreational tourism part of it hasn’t really hit at all,” said Robert Ardovino, the owner of a local restaurant, who also offers vintage Spartan trailers from the 1950s for overnight stays by the mountains, under the desert stars. He, too, was looking into opening a dispensary and maybe, one day, a consumption site.

The new boom has at least meant added tax revenue — about $1.3 million this fiscal year; the city’s entire budget is about $12 million — is flowing into city government.

On a recent drive through Sunland Park, Mario Juarez-Infante, the city manager, passed a place where rocks and dirt were piled up along the roadside. “We’re redoing that park — it’s been vacant for 20 years,” he said. Pointing to another site nearby, he said, “City Hall is going there.”

But officials said other factors were also at play in the city’s growth, including a new rail yard north of the city and the westward sprawl of El Paso.

“Cannabis is just a small part of a much larger vision for us,” said the mayor, Javier Perea, a Sunland Park native who still lives in his childhood home.

The city has long been home to an aspect of the drug trade that preceded marijuana legalization, officials said: the smuggling of illicit drugs and also migrants. Much of that was centered in the Anapra neighborhood, a cramped, low-lying area along the Rio Grande with a history of flooding and crime.

“It was bad,” said Blasa Zapata, 36, who grew up in Anapra and works a manager at the Sunland Park branch of Ultra Health, a large chain of marijuana dispensaries. Many of the people she knew growing up had tough lives, she said. “Half of them are dead and half of them are in jail,” she said.

“We went from smoking it, getting Mexican weed, to working at a dispensary,” said Jesus Muñoz, a co-worker at the dispensary. “I never thought I’d be here.”

Now there are signs of development even around the Anapra neighborhood as investors come in from El Paso. The construction project Hernández was working on involved helping his friend Michael Birkelbach transform a ramshackle, one-story house into a small distillery for sotol, an alcohol similar to tequila that is derived from a desert plant. “Everybody’s like, ‘It’s a dispensary?’” Birkelbach said. “And I’m like, ‘No, a distillery.’”

But he said he was locating just over the border in Sunland Park for much the same reason that marijuana businesses had set up shop there. The rules around distributing locally made spirits, he said, were more favorable in New Mexico.

And he could still see Texas, just down the road.

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Region: New Mexico

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