Growing pains

by Annabella Farmer, Searchlight New Mexico | September 10, 2021
10 min read
Mike Hinkle on the property he and Ryan Timmermans planned to use for their cannabis growing operation in Carson, New Mexico. Photograph by Don J. Usner/Searchlight New Mexico

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been made available to the Sun by our content-sharing partner, Searchlight New Mexico, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to investigative reporting in New Mexico.

When New Mexico’s recreational cannabis bill was signed into law in April, Mike Hinkle and Ryan Timmermans jumped at the chance to get into the industry. The two business partners, both recent transplants from the South, bought portable buildings, seeds, grow lights and a property in the village of Carson, with a domestic well they thought they could use to irrigate their plants. In total, they invested more than $50,000.

“That’s actually the most money I’ve ever had in my life,” Hinkle said. “I was extremely excited because we thought we had a shot.”

Three months later, Hinkle fought back tears as he spoke at a hearing about regulations for the new cannabis industry, held at the State Capitol. He’d discovered that a domestic water supply would not fulfill the requirements for a license and that no amount of money would get him the required water rights in Carson, near Taos—because they simply weren’t available. He was still emotional when the three-minute timer ran out and his mic was cut off.

Hinkle grows a small number of cannabis plants for his own medical use with a tent, grow lights and ventilation system at his residence in Taos. Photograph by Don J. Unser/Searchlight New Mexico

Hinkle was not alone in his dismay. Nearly 200 people submitted written comments to the state’s newly formed Cannabis Control Division, while dozens of others voiced frustrations at the Aug. 6 hearing. Among them were aspiring cannabis business owners and members of acequia collectives—traditional ditch-irrigation communities worried that the new rules would undermine their senior water rights. Most shared a central concern: water.

Would there be enough for farmers who depend on acequias to grow food? How would rural cannabis growers secure water rights? How could the average New Mexican afford those rights? The two presiding officials at the meeting—a retired judge and a deputy director of the Cannabis Control Division—heard participants raise those questions again and again.

“Give the citizens a chance,” implored Jeffery Bannowsky, of Farmington. Like many, he feared that big corporations and out-of-staters would corner the cannabis market.

In the days after the hearing, Hinkle put it more bluntly: “I’m afraid the government is going to screw us,” he said.

Problems run deep

The state’s Cannabis Regulation Act requires that people hoping to get a license—whether they plan to grow 200 plants or 10,000—must first prove that they have valid and sufficient water rights. In New Mexico, these don’t come cheap: Some cost tens of thousands of dollars per acre foot. That means the water rights requirement might squeeze out almost everyone except big companies, potentially destroying any possibility of an equitable marketplace that benefits local communities.

But the problem goes deeper than cost. In many areas of New Mexico, there simply isn’t enough water to go around.

The state is in a 20-year megadrought—potentially the worst in 1,200 years, scientists report. New Mexico’s legalization occurred just as chile farmers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley were offered an incentive to leave their fields fallow in order to restore dangerously low groundwater levels. In areas like Carson, where Timmermans and Hinkle planned to set up shop, water is so scarce that many people need to have it trucked in. Climate models predict that New Mexico will only get drier in the future.

Proponents were so anxious to expedite the bill that they didn’t fully consider the state’s strained water resources, critics said. There was no accounting of how much water the industry might use, said John Romero, the water rights division director at the New Mexico Office of the State Engineer. No limit was placed on the number of licenses—local or out-of-state—that could be issued. 

On Aug. 25, the Regulation and Licensing Department began accepting online applications from would-be cannabis producers: Within 10 days, 1,222 applications had poured in. “We’re driving the car as we’re building it,” said John Blair, deputy superintendent of the RLD.

The Office of the State Engineer, which handles water rights issues, was consulted only minimally when the bill was introduced in the regular legislative session. When it was pushed through in the special session, the OSE was not consulted at all, Romero said.

If it weren’t for the efforts of the New Mexico Acequia Association, the bill likely wouldn’t have offered any substantive water protections, according to the NMAA’s executive director, Paula Garcia. Acequias are the lifeblood of traditional agriculture in New Mexico, nourishing local farms and providing a cultural anchor. The NMAA works to help acequia members, or parciantes, protect the waterways. “It’s not about making money,” Garcia said. “It’s about trying to balance livelihood with way of life.”

Once the bill was on their radar, Garcia said, its flaws became apparent. “It was an uphill battle” to put protections in place, but securing them was critical, she said. Cannabis growing can have impacts “in every quiet corner of every village.”

Garcia and other NMAA members helped convince lawmakers to add a requirement that applicants have either water rights, a legal right to a commercial water supply, or another sufficient source. This was only a tentative win, offering limited protections. “The sponsors were so intent on passing something, they didn’t want us to meddle with their bill too much,” she said.

For aspiring growers like Hinkle and Timmermans, though, the water rights requirements meant the end of the road. Like many hopefuls, they hadn’t understood how water scarcity would impact their ability to get a license.

“This whole water rights thing caught me sideways,” said Hinkle, who moved to New Mexico from South Carolina in 2015. Until cannabis regulations became final on Aug. 24, the requirements and process of applying for a license were obscure. Prospective producers were left to pore over the 177-page Cannabis Regulation Act and consult draft regulations, which were still in flux. Many did not understand what was required.  

The partners had hoped to run a cannabis micro-business for up to 200 plants on a property next to a nonprofit that Timmermans launched in 2017, Veterans Off-Grid, which offers housing and support to veterans experiencing homelessness. They assumed they could use the domestic well on the property, supplemented with rainwater catchment.

It wasn’t until Hinkle read an article in the Santa Fe New Mexican that he realized the domestic well would not be sufficient. He made desperate calls to state offices, only to discover that pursuing water rights would be futile.

Now, he and Timmermans say they’ll lose their investment. Hinkle feels that New Mexico’s lawmakers set him up for failure. “This is going to break the backs of people like myself,” he said. 

Cacophony of calls

John Romero has seen droves of applicants baffled by water rights. “We’re getting calls all the time,” he said. “In every region, there’s somebody interested in cannabis.” Romero created an online FAQ for common issues—misunderstandings about domestic wells, acequias and more. But the calls just kept coming. 

Water rights requirements pose enormous problems for small growers with limited capital, especially in rural areas. Acquiring water rights is costly and time-consuming. Many basins are closed to new appropriations. “There’s no more water to go around,” Romero explained. That means businesses have to transfer rights by leasing or buying them from an existing owner. 

Already, there’s a long queue of such transfer applications at the OSE. “We’ve got a backlog of over 500 applications already pending statewide,” Romero said. Completing a transfer can take up to a year, or even longer if the transfer is held up by neighbors’ protests—a crucial tool, as acequia communities see it.

Transfers degrade the democratic structure of acequias, Garcia said. “When people move their water rights to a well, they’re going to pump, rain or shine,” she explained. With acequias, there’s a shared ebb and flow. “When there’s less water, we all get less water. When there’s more, we all get more.”

Big cannabis, big worries

Poki Piottin knows all about the problems with water transfers. And he knows about fending off out-of-towners, too.

Piottin is the commissioner for the Vado de Juan Paiz Ditch Association in Guadalupe County, south of Las Vegas, home to market-garden farms, hay production and other agriculture. He fears that cannabis production will be devastating to locals, a threat brought home when he received a call from a California man in early spring. “He was very arrogant, very aggressive,” Piottin said.

The Californian wanted to buy property and water rights at the end of Piottin’s ditch—and wanted assurances that the acequia would offer a reliable water supply for cannabis. Piottin explained that assurances were impossible: The flow of the acequia depended entirely on weather conditions, and parciantes must make compromises when water is scarce. He tried to explain, too, that an acequia is not like a well or a pump: It belongs to an idiosyncratic community. “But he really wouldn’t hear anything about the cultural traditions here. For him, there’s water and he should get some if he has rights.”

Piottin worries about incoming corporations, as well. If legal conflicts erupt, they have the advantage over private citizens in money, time and political influence. “This is a tragedy in many ways,” he said. “Most people like myself are too busy holding onto their land to get involved in politics at that level.”

Garcia offers an added perspective. The owner of a 200-acre cattle ranch in Mora, she’s typically been able to irrigate five acres from the acequia in past years. In 2020, she could irrigate only a tenth of an acre, just enough for a small garden. She had to sell 90 percent of her herd.

Of chief concern, she said, is a variance rule in the state’s cannabis law that allows for case-by-case exceptions to the regulations—a loophole that could allow big cannabis companies to use huge amounts of water. More than 30 parciantes submitted written comments urging lawmakers to remove the variance rule.

There are two possible futures for New Mexico, Garcia explained in a presentation to a legislative committee in August. The state can provide environmental stewardship and meaningful social equity protections to support small businesses and enrich rural communities. Or it can proceed without protections and face an onslaught of producers. In this darker vision—the one she fears will become reality—acequia communities will be overrun by corporate cannabis, stripped of their livelihoods and forced off land that has been in their families for generations.

“One thing that does give me some hope,” Garcia said, “is that we’re not starting from scratch. We have tools that give us a fighting chance to push back.”

Indeed, the pushback has already produced results—painful ones for Hinkle and Timmermans.

By late November, the Regulation and Licensing Department will begin announcing the winners and losers—those who will be able to grow and sell cannabis, and those who won’t.

Hinkle and Timmermans have already lost. Timmermans said he’ll do his best to make use of the land they bought, but Hinkle plans on leaving. “I wanted to build my life here in New Mexico,” he said. “But New Mexico is going to push me out.”


Annabella Farmer is the Rob Dean Reporting Fellow for Searchlight New Mexico. Born and raised in Santa Fe, she came to investigative journalism while studying at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and graduated from the writing program in May 2021. She worked with High Country News as an intern, and contributed research support and consulting for the Polk Award-winning Land Grab Universities project. She has also written about education, sustainable land use, art, and sanitation practices during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

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