Cannabis has long been legal in many US states, including New Mexico. A visit to where you can buy marijuana at the store next door.

A young man, wearing blue rubber gloves, smiles behind a shelf containing containers with different types of cannabis.

More options than apples in German supermarkets

Johnathan Bodycombe says he started smoking marijuana while studying in Florida. “You had to meet a merchant somewhere and you didn't know what to expect. “There was no information about the THC content, the strain or its origin.”

Bodycombe no longer has such problems as a consumer. The young man lives in the US state of New Mexico, where the use of cannabis products has been legal for almost exactly two years. Bodycombe works at Best Daze, a so-called dispensary in a Santa Fe suburb. The pharmacological name of the cannabis stores dates back to the years when the plant was only approved for medicinal users.

Anyone over the age of 21 can stock up on a gigantic selection of products at Best Daze. In the store's glass display cases you can find cannabis in all its forms: in the form of a classic bulb, in the form of a carefully rolled joint, in the form of a tincture, candy or concentrate for vaporization. The day's specials are written on a blackboard in front of the store, and immediate neighbors in the discreet shopping center are a bank and a veterinary surgery.

For Johnathan Bodycombe, the greatest advantage of legalization is the possibility of conscious consumption. “Customers have access to good cannabis grown organically and without the use of pesticides.” Additionally, they can decide specifically how much THC they consume and how. “For many people, pre-rolled joints are an easy way to get started,” Bodycombe says. “If you've ever smoked a cigarette, you might as well smoke a joint.”

Marijuana is legal in 24 states and territories

Other customers have specific preferences. “Some people only consume cannabis in edible or drinkable form to protect their lungs.” In general, dispensaries differentiate between “sativa” and “indica.” Sativa has a more stimulating effect, “we also call it daytime herb”, while Indica has a more relaxing effect. “The two varieties have also hybridized a lot over the years,” says Bodycombe.

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New Mexico is one of 24 U.S. states and territories where cannabis has been legalized for non-medical use. In March of this year, the state governor announced that industry revenue had recently reached the billion-dollar mark. New Mexico collected about $75 million in taxes.

The medical use of cannabis has long been considered uncontroversial in much of the United States. The plant and its derivatives are prescribed to treat pain and epileptic seizures. Cancer patients who want relief from sleep and eating disorders are among the largest user groups. In the late 1990s, the first licensed dispensaries appeared where patients could stock up, especially on the west coast. The distribution of marijuana products by these private suppliers was only carried out upon presentation of a special user card, but it laid the foundations for today's industry.

In 2012, the Pacific states of California and Washington took the next step in their development by opening sales to all adults. This meant that companies were able to enter the business on a large scale and brands with a national presence emerged. The Californian company Cookies, for example, currently owns 15 dispensaries in the western US. Its logo is so iconic that merchants in Germany also offer their products in fake Cookies packaging.

Buy like in the supermarket

The professionally presented creams, joints and gummies at Best Daze in Santa Fe could easily be found on supermarket shelves if it weren't for the child-resistant packaging. The big names in the sector have their own marketing departments and graphic designers and are led by business graduates. Simple and tasteful product design is used to woo the Apple generation.

At least in legalized states, cannabis has undergone a drastic makeover over the last century. European colonial powers introduced hemp as a crop and, as a narcotic, it spread across both halves of the American continent. Cannabis was also used for medicinal purposes in the US for a long time, but in the 1920s the first states began to criminalize its use. Finally, in 1937 it was illegalized at the federal level.

The repression against cannabis users was not evenly distributed. Latinos and African Americans in particular were arrested due to the new laws. The name “marijuana” was used strategically by law enforcement authorities to give this everyday plant a strange and dangerous reputation. The term comes from Mexico and was associated with the migrants who arrived in the country at the beginning of the 20th century.

Johnathan Bodycombe, dispensary employee in New Mexico

“Customers have access to good cannabis grown organically and without pesticides”

The so-called War on Drugs, which began in the 1980s, was particularly devastating for blacks and immigrants. According to the civil rights organization ACLU, black people are still three times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people. In illegal states, life sentences for possession of large quantities remain common.

Because while in New Mexico you can buy and consume freely, things are much more draconian a little further east. The city of Fort Sumner is located in rural, flat western New Mexico, about an hour's drive from the neighboring state of Texas. While there are now two dispensaries in the nest of 860 souls an hour further west in Texas, even a small amount of cannabis can land you several months in prison.

Competition in New Mexico is fierce.

“I never imagined that my wife and I would end up selling marijuana in the middle of the desert,” says Joseph Edelman. The tall man with stubble and his wife own Outlaw Herbs, a small store on Fort Sumner's main street. The building is historic and, like much of Fort Sumner, dates back to pioneer times. “Outlaw Herbs” is not a corporate company, the display cases only contain products from the region.

“My wife takes care of all the complicated bureaucratic issues and that allows me to take care of the store,” Edelman says. She works in her store six days a week; there are no other employees. The Edelmans came to New Mexico from Washington state two years ago. Joseph Edelman long worked as a climber for a tree care company. After an accident he could no longer work and shortly after he was fired. “After that I told myself I would never work for anyone again.”

Competition is fierce in New Mexico, says Joseph Edelman. “We have more dispensaries than Colorado and less than half the population.” In the state, the process to obtain a cannabis sales license is particularly simple. Joseph Edelman hopes a third dispensary will open soon in his city. Best Daze in Santa Fe also competes with two other stores in its immediate area.

Many sell their products on the black market.

However, the black market poses special difficulties for Edelman. “A product that I have to sell for $80 because of taxes, here on the street I can buy it for $30, so it's hard for me to compete,” he says. Since cannabis is illegal at the federal level, only products produced there can be sold within the states. As a result, many who grow up struggle. New Mexico, for example, has almost two million inhabitants, while in the neighboring state of Texas, where marijuana is illegal, there are 30 million. Encourage producers enough to produce more than there is demand in their own country and sell the rest across the border. This keeps the black market alive.

Regional producers, whose cannabis Edelman sells at Outlaw Herbs, also put pressure on small businesses. “They themselves sell their products on the black market and, of course, at better prices than me,” he says.

A half-dozen states have followed New Mexico's move toward legalization since 2022, with more to come next year. In New Mexico, tax revenues go to the state's general treasury, and in other states they fund public education and social programs. It cannot be ruled out that the Biden administration will legalize cannabis at the federal level during a second term.

According to Happy Daze's Johnathan Bodycombe, no one should worry about legalization in Germany. “Cannabis is very gentle and forgiving,” he says. “Even if you suddenly get too high, you just have to lie down for a while. “Everything will happen again.”

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