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Las Cruces mulls spending millions in cannabis and opioid money


Las Cruces is sitting on at least $10 million of unspent money. Some of the money stems from the expansion of cannabis operations; but most of it arises in the aftermath of the historic opioid settlement. How and where to spend the money rests in the hands of city officials and elected representatives.

Las Cruces officials presented an update on the two funding sources during a budget presentation on March 12, adding to a previous discussion in council chambers Sept. 11, 2023.

For now, the money remains unspent.

According to a March 12 presentation, the city has collected about $1.5 million from the cannabis excise tax, which is a 12 percent tax placed on sales of legal cannabis within city limits.

The tax rate will grow yearly. It stops at 18 percent on July 1, 2030. But as long as residents (and people from Texas) continue to buy legal weed, Las Cruces can count on the money as a stable revenue source. This money can also be used for anything the city wishes, as it is considered “unrestricted.”

Josie Trevino, interim Finance Deputy Director, told the council that two possible uses for the money were the metropolitan redevelopment areas (MRAs) and the real-time crime center (RTCC).

The MRAs are small districts the council established over El Paseo/S. Solano and W. Picacho. The districts allow the city to invest public funds in infrastructure development to stimulate economic growth in those corridors.

The RTCC is a project pitched by the Las Cruces Police Department as a tool to solve and prevent crime. It would connect LCPD to public cameras and allow LCPD to surveil areas in real time. It also provides information to officers when they arrive at a scene that they might not otherwise have access to.

The council has said that both projects are top priorities. Because cannabis excise tax money is unrestricted, both can be funded.

The same cannot be said for the opioid settlement money.

Municipalities across Doña Ana County expect to receive $25 million. About $9.9 million of that will go to the city of Las Cruces. So far, Las Cruces officials said they’ve collected about $3.4 million. The rest will filter in between now and 2038.

According to the settlements, the money is restricted for use in center areas to repair the damage from decades of crisis inflicted by pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

Deaths in the hundreds of thousands

The money stems from a massive lawsuit in which dozens of attorneys general across the county sought compensation from big pharmaceutical companies.

The attorneys general alleged the companies caused the opioid epidemic that’s rocked America and New Mexico.

The lawsuits alleged that beginning in the 1990s, pharmaceutical distributors and manufacturers used deceptive marketing practices while misrepresenting addiction risks and touting the benefits without disclosing risks.

That left millions of people addicted to opioids, which doctors had prescribed as a treatment for chronic pain for nearly three decades by this point. As prescriptions ran out and regulations began to tighten in the mid-2010s, people addicted to opioids turned to the booming fentanyl market.

This process has left at least one million people dead between 1990 and 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s also created a massive strain on society – felt acutely by families in Las Cruces.

“Increased crime, quality of life issues has a direct link going back to the opioid crisis and the actions of the manufacturers, distributors, and the retail pharmacies,” Las Cruces Police Chief Jeremy Story said at a council meeting on Sept. 11, 2023. “Those actions that caused the settlements caused a lot of the issues we face today.”

This is what the settlement money is meant to remediate.

During the same council meeting, an attorney representing Las Cruces explained what the city could spend the money on.

“All these monies can be used for opioid remediation,” said Luis Robles. “And that is to provide the treatment, the services, and develop the strategies and infrastructure necessary to treat those that have the opioid use disorder.”

Barbara Bencomo, the city’s chief administrative officer, divided the spending options into three categories: treatment, prevention, and everything else.

Bencomo said that the “Treatment” category includes medication-assisted treatment and improvements to the criminal justice system. She said the “Prevention” category includes programs to address overprescribing, misuse, and overdoses. The remaining category included items like training for first responders and research.

Bencomo said more will be decided by May, and options will be delivered for a council vote this summer.

“We’ll have, hopefully, all the information you need to make some good decisions about the use of these funds,” Bencomo said.

opioid settlement, Las Cruces spending, $10 million, cannabis, funding