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Las Cruces mayoral candidate charged with cannabis-related felony, accuses city of targeting him

LAS CRUCES – A man running for mayor of Las Cruces was charged with a felony after police said he sold cannabis products to undercover agents in August.

Jason Estrada, 37, was charged with conspiracy to commit a violation of cannabis trafficking regulation, a fourth-degree felony. He appeared before a judge for the first time on Friday.

Estrada announced his run for mayor on Sept. 15, shortly before the charges were filed on Sept. 24. He owns Everything Las Cruces, a company which markets local businesses and promotes the city, and manages Speak Easy, a local shop that sells CBD products and cannabis-themed merchandise.

According to an affidavit, agents with the Doña Ana County Metro Narcotics unit went undercover into Speak Easy in August. The undercover agents said they purchased cannabis products in the form of marijuana cigarettes, wax and a bag of cannabis bud.

The agents said they bought the cannabis directly from Estrada. Currently, storefronts are not allowed to sell cannabis. While cannabis use was legalized by the New Mexico Legislature and governor, selling it is not legal yet. The state has until April 2022 to set up the parameters of a cannabis selling market.

Estrada told the Sun-News that he was not guilty of doing anything wrong. He has not yet had the opportunity to enter a formal plea in the Doña Ana County Magistrate court. He could face up to 18 months in prison if convicted.

Cease and desist

Friday’s hearing was not Estrada’s first time in legal trouble with cannabis.

Over the summer, Estrada received first the attention of media organizations, then the attention of the state government.

The store, called Speak Easy, held its official grand opening on July 17, according to its Facebook page.

Estrada advertised on Facebook that customers could walk in, buy a T-shirt and be gifted cannabis.

“We knew that there was going to be a little bit of pushback for things that people don’t understand and for things that are brand new,” Estrada said.

But regulatory agencies saw this as a problem. Ten days after Speak Easy’s grand opening, New Mexico’s Cannabis Control Division ordered Estrada to cease operations.

“The Cannabis Control Division will not tolerate any individuals or businesses who violate the Cannabis Regulation Act or otherwise diminish the integrity of the adult-use cannabis industry in New Mexico,” Regulation and Licensing Department Deputy Superintendent John Blair stated in a news release in July.

“All New Mexicans should be on notice that violations of the Cannabis Regulation Act will be met with swift, strong action from the state.”

Matt Madrid, Estrada attorney, said in a news release at the time that Speak Easy would comply with the order.

“The practice commonly referred to as ‘gifting’ will not occur on our premises, however, we are still able to assist the community with CBD products and merchandise,” Madrid wrote in a news release.

But DASO agents said this did not occur.

According to the affidavit, the two undercover agents bought cannabis products from Estrada in August. The agents said they bought the cannabis products from Estrada directly and didn’t have to buy a T-shirt.

Estrada: ‘I am gonna fight it’

After his first appearance in court on Friday, Estrada was defiant in his opposition to the charges and professed his innocence.

“I didn’t do this and so I’m gonna fight it,” Estrada told the Sun-News. “My family and business colleagues and my attorneys and everybody behind me said, we’re here to fight this with you.”

Madrid, Estrada’s attorney, issued a news release shortly after the hearing that declared his client’s innocence and suggested that the City of Las Cruces was targeting his client.

“Make no mistake, this is not the cannabis control division coming after Mr. Estrada, this is a prosecution initiated by our local city government and law enforcement,” Madrid said in a news release.

He added that the city was seeking to revoke Estrada’s business license for Speak Easy before the criminal charges were filed.

“It’s interesting that the alleged activity in the criminal complaint were widely publicized in July but the actions taken by the City of Las Cruces, administratively and criminally, were not initiated until Mr. Estrada announced his candidacy,” Madrid said.

The City of Las Cruces Community Development office, which oversees business licenses, could not be reached for comment on Friday.

Estrada said the charges came as a shock, then a worry, when he first learned of them.

“It’s shock, it’s worry, it’s fear of the unknown of what’s going to happen,” Estrada said. “But then there was also a sense of anger on why this could be happening and what’s about to happen.”

Estrada said he believes the criminal charges are not in good faith. He didn’t attribute the targeting to a specific person in city government but said that it reinforces his view that Las Cruces needs new leadership.

“That’s why I announced early that I was running for mayor. And then these things started to happen right after that,” he said.

Estrada was not arrested during the judicial process and was released on his own recognizance Friday morning. He’s scheduled for a preliminary hearing in January.

“We’re going to continue to fight and we’re going to push this all the way,” he said.

Las Cruces store owner charged with felony cannabis distribution

An owner of a CBD store and gift shop in Doña Ana County pleaded not guilty earlier this week to a fourth-degree felony charge of unauthorized cannabis sales.

Jason Estrada, who is one of the owners of Speak Easy in Las Cruces, filed his not guilty plea with a state magistrate court on Nov. 9, in response to the felony charge filed in September.

Estrada is likely the first person in New Mexico to be charged with illegally selling cannabis under the recently passed Cannabis Regulation Act.

Growing Forward, the collaborative podcast between NM Political Report and New Mexico PBS, spoke with Estrada in August, just after the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department sent him a cease and desist letter, asking him and his partners to stop giving away cannabis with the purchase of a shirt or sticker.

Estrada told Growing Forward that after he and his partners received the letter from RLD, they transitioned back to selling legal hemp products like CBD.

“We 100 percent stopped and we’re just a CBD store,” Estrada said. “One of the best CBD stores in the state. I will say that as well.”

But according to court records, the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s office alleged that Speak Easy did not stop after the letter from regulators.

According to an affidavit from Doña Ana County Metro Narcotics Agent R. Holguin, undercover agents entered Speak Easy in August and purchased three different cannabis products without purchasing a shirt.

“The items purchased by the undercover agent(s) consisted of: 1) 5 pre rolled cigarettes containing marijuna, 2) a small container of THC wax, and 3) approximately 3.6 grams of marijuana flower,” the affidavit read.

According to the affidavit, officers had the products tested at a state-approved cannabis testing lab and that all three products tested positive for THC, the psychoactive substance in cannabis.

In a press release, Estrada’s lawyer, Matthew Madrid, said his client has been in full compliance with RLD’s cease and desist letter since he received it.
“The decision to comply with the Cease and Desist Order was based, in large part, on communications between Speak Easy and the Cannabis Control Division,” Madrid said in the statement. “Make no mistake, this is not the Cannabis Control Division coming after Mr. Estrada, this is a prosecution initiated by our local government and law enforcement.”

Speak Easy gained public attention after the business started advertising on social media the free cannabis with the purchase of another item. Estrada told Growing Forward that his business was simply taking advantage of the clear language of the Cannabis Regulation Act, which allows for the gifting of cannabis. But in its letter, RLD told Estrada and his partners that the price of the stickers being sold were essentially too close to the value of cannabis being given away.

Estrada is scheduled to appear for a preliminary hearing on Jan. 7, 2022.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include a statement from Estrada’s attorney

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About Andy Lyman

Andy Lyman is an Albuquerque based reporter. He previously covered the New Mexico's legislative session for the New Mexico News Network and served as a reporter and host for numerous news outlets.

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