SUNLAND PARK – Clients begin to line up on a hot Friday afternoon in mid-October at Ultra Health in Sunland Park.
Just a three-minute drive away, others pull into the parking lot of the building that houses Pecos Valley Production and the soon-to-open OSO Cannabis Co. Dispensaries.
At both locations, there’s a familiar sight to this “Bright Friday,” said Ultra Health District Director Jesus Muñoz: a large number of Texans.
These customers have been a driving force in Sunland Park’s successful adult use market.
In New Mexico, more than 1,000 licenses were approved nearly eight months into the sale of cannabis to adult use. And here in Sunland Park, a town of about 17,000 located right next door to El Paso, a cluster of dispensaries has sprung up.
Sunland Park — like other New Mexico-Texas border towns — has rivaled much larger communities like Las Cruces and Santa Fe in cannabis sales, raking in nearly $10 million — and counting — in less than a year.
“The Texas customer is very important to us,” said Leonard Salgado, director of business development and expansion for Pecos Valley Productions. “It’s not just Sunland Park, but it’s obviously places like Ruidoso that attract a lot of visitors from Texas. I mean, you can look at their numbers in Ruidoso and you can see that’s what drives business there as well.”
A look at the numbers
New Mexico cities bordering Texas have continued to remain important to the state’s recreational cannabis industry, spurring economic activity for a plant that remains illegal in the state where many customers come from.
Almost 30% of the monthly sales going back in April are attributed to border towns like Sunland Park, Hobbs, Clovis, Las Cruces, and more.
In Sunland Park, adult use sales have also increased steadily since April, along with overall sales numbers for the state, according to Cannabis Control Division data. In April, for example, adult use sales at Sunland Park were nearly $1.2 million. And in October, the most recent month for which sales data was reported, recreational cannabis sales in the border city amounted to more than $1.5 million.
Sunland Park recently saw a $164,000 increase in recreational cannabis sales from September to October — the city’s biggest jump in sales to date.
“Not many people remember that El Paso has a population as large as Albuquerque,” said David De La Rosa, general manager of Ultra Health in Sunland Park. “Albuquerque has seven Ultra Healths — just Ultra Healths. And here we have seven dispensaries.”
Muñoz added, “The fact that we’re so close to Texas makes a difference.”
Fri at Sunland Park
Customers emerge from the dispensaries in Sunland Park, bags full of cannabis products in their hands.
Due to its small size, the dispensaries in this city are very close.
In one part of town, Pecos Valley Production and OSO Cannabis Co occupy the same building – and a short drive away are Everest Cannabis and R. Greenleaf Dispensaries.
“Yeah, it’s really unique,” Salgado said. “Most of the municipalities in which we work have distance requirements from one clinic to another.”
Car after car drives into some of these dispensaries in this frontier town, nearly all of them with Texas license plates.
For those Texans over the age of 21, buying cannabis from a dispensary is a new experience. For others, it’s just a shorter trip than, say, Colorado.
But almost everyone says the same thing: It’s safer than buying on the illicit market.
“It’s better than buying it on the street because at least you get an education from the staff here,” said East El Paso resident Jason Admir, who bought his cannabis at Pecos Valley Productions. “Plus, they won’t sell you anything that isn’t tested. … Off the street, you never know what you’re going to get.”
That’s something Alex Martinez, a Sunland Park resident who came with two friends in a car with Texas license plates, agrees.
“Nobody wants to deal with bad guys,” Martinez says. “It is legal. … It’s like going for a beer.”
This is a slower Friday than usual, says Shahi Estrada, site manager for Pecos Valley Productions in Sunland Park. But customers, as at Ultra Health, are lining up to buy cannabis. He says about seven in 10 customers are from Texas. But this may be less than that.
“She’s constantly busy,” said Estrada. “We had to double down on our headcount just to make sure we meet our business needs. And then, of course, just the ability to adapt — the ability to be very flexible (to this) ever-changing industry. We’re kind of learning as we grow.”
Estrada has been at the forefront of cannabis sales, operating in Denver when recreational sales first began. He said tourists from other states flocked to the city to buy cannabis legally. It is no different in Sunland Park.
Rodrigo Rivas, originally from El Paso but now moved away, came to Sunland Park to buy some ready-made rolls – cannabis already packaged in a cigarette-like form. Legalizing marijuana could be a positive, said Rivas, who was in town for a wedding, pointing to tax revenue that could be used for education and economic development.
“How the state of New Mexico taxes cannabis… that’s going to be a good thing (in the long run),” Rivas said.
I look forward
Ask any Sunland Park dispensary manager or cannabis executive what they think of cannabis sales in this frontier town going forward and you’ll get the same answer: We’re optimistic.
That’s because Texas, such as it is, is nowhere near legalizing adult cannabis sales.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has expressed support for reducing penalties for possession of small amounts of cannabis, but has made clear he is not looking to legalize sales.
The closest Texas came to that point was in the recent Texas gubernatorial race, when Democratic nominee Beto O’Rourke, of El Pasoan, expressed support for legalization. O’Rourke lost to Abbott in the general election.
So, for now, cannabis is likely to continue to fuel the economy of border towns like Sunland Park.
That’s something Salgado of Pecos Valley Production believes.
“I mean, as long as we can take it, we’ll take advantage of it,” Salgado said. “Hopefully, Texas won’t engage in, you know, adult use of cannabis over the next five years.” But there is the problem of market oversaturation, which is something that happens in big New Mexico cities like Albuquerque.
“Everyone who wants to gamble and who’s in the Sunland Park market — needs to face reality. This isn’t going to go on forever and for a very long time,” said Duke Rodriguez, President and CEO of Ultra Health.
For now, those Texan customers will keep coming—just as Martinez, the New Mexican, and his group of Texan friends did.
“Some people don’t even realize they’re in another state (buying cannabis),” said Julio Perez, COO of Cardiel Cannabis Co. “They’re like, ‘Is this Texas?'” “”