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Legal pot or not? A New Mexico debate

Editor’s note: Not since the Legislature approved racinos and Indian gambling in the mid-1990s has New Mexico faced the kind of sweeping social change and economic impact that would come with legalizing recreational marijuana. Proponents laud its economic potential and “social justice” tenets, while opponents lament that it would only add to the state’s problems. The Journal today begins a five-part series on what is likely to be a heated debate in Santa Fe.

FIRST IN A FIVE-PART SERIES
Read the other stories in the series: Legal pot or not?


Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A sweeping proposal to legalize recreational marijuana that will hit the Legislature this month is sure to rivet the attention of business owners, judges, law enforcement officials, educators and parents.

Supporters say passage would create a new industry that could create 11,000 jobs, millions of dollars in new state and local tax revenues and correct decades of social injustice to minorities and poor people who suffered the brunt of the so-called war on drugs.

Opponents dismiss the revenue projections as pie in the sky and say the social costs of sweeping marijuana legalization in a state where about 70,000 people now use medical marijuana are too high.

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino

The proposal by Rep. Javier Martinez and Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, both Albuquerque Democrats, is among the most ambitious pot legalization schemes in the nation.

It would not only legalize marijuana sales to adults, but also would:

  • Allow people to wipe out “marijuana-related convictions” from court and police records.
  • Require some workplace protections for medical and recreational marijuana users.
  • Allow statewide licensed cultivation of marijuana.
  • Place no limit on how much a producer could grow, but each plant would be subject to a tax. That, in theory, would avoid the massive surpluses of marijuana seen in some states that have legalized it.
  • Require local governments to opt in or opt out of allowing licensed adult-use recreational marijuana dispensaries through elections.
  • Prohibit schools from refusing enrollment to someone using medical or commercial cannabis – although recreational use would not be allowed on school grounds.
  • Prohibit landlords from refusing to rent to someone using medical or commercial cannabis.
  • Prohibit the separation of children from parents who lawfully use medical or commercial marijuana.
  • Allow individuals to grow up to six mature marijuana plants for personal use.

 

Supporters say the bill would still allow people to be fired for using marijuana in the workplace – or being high at work – and would keep marijuana dispensaries away from schools, day care or youth centers.

They also say workplace protections for employees using marijuana when not at work would be balanced by exempting employers with federal government contracts from those protections if they would result in the loss of the business’s federal contract.

Bottom line: Most employers would not be able to discipline workers who consume marijuana on their own time, as long as they weren’t clearly impaired on the job.

While marijuana legislation was a nonstarter under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, the new occupant of the Governor’s Mansion in Santa Fe, Michelle Lujan Grisham, says she is open to it – but with plenty of conditions.

Meanwhile, how much revenue recreational marijuana would generate for the state is open to debate.

Legislative Finance Committee staff, at one point, estimated the revenue at between $35 million and $70 million. Supporters argue the number is well over $100 million in the first year or two.

And they say it would create a multimillion- dollar industry that they acknowledge would require regulation, licensing and administration. In a way, it would be like creating and regulating today’s liquor industry from scratch.

Consensus building

Rep. Javier Martinez

During last year’s legislative session, Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, and others introduced the little-publicized House Bill 312. Martinez and other sponsors withdrew the bill because it wasn’t on then-Gov. Susana Martinez’s call for a 30-day session.

Javier Martinez said this year’s proposal is substantially the same as last year’s, with minor changes.

He traveled around the state last year, talking with people in more conservative areas, trying to find out what their concerns were and how they could be addressed.

“I think the level of opposition was softer than I expected,” he said. “People were asking about funding treatment and education on the issue.”

Emily Kaltenbach, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that has worked for legalization of marijuana throughout the country, has been working on marijuana legalization and decriminalization for years.

She and other proponents said the experience of other states gives New Mexico an advantage in drawing up legislation to legalize recreational cannabis.

“We have been looking at how to avoid the pitfalls other states experienced,” she said. “This is a huge new marketplace that is very complex.”

National movement

Marijuana legalization has widespread support in New Mexico, with 60 percent favoring it in an Albuquerque Journal poll of likely voters before last year’s election.

Nationally, more than half the population over the age of 26 has used marijuana at least once, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

That’s more than 100 million adults who have admitted using marijuana, despite the fact it is a Schedule One Narcotic under the Controlled Substances Act, passed in 1970 as part of then-President Richard M. Nixon’s “War on Drugs” that was partly in response to the anti-war movement.

Now, 33 states have some sort of medical cannabis program – all technically illegal under federal law.

Ten states – Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington – and the District of Columbia legalized marijuana for recreational use.

Last November, Michigan voters approved a ballot measure permitting adults ages 21 and over to purchase and possess recreational-use marijuana.

Several think tanks say recreational marijuana is a potential billion-dollar industry in some states.

Last year, Vermont became the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational use through the legislative process, rather than by a ballot measure. Vermont’s law allows for adults ages 21 and over to grow and possess small amounts of cannabis. However, it does not permit the sale of nonmedical cannabis.

New Jersey’s Legislature is moving ahead with a marijuana legalization bill. And New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has called for legalizing recreational marijuana as part of a 2019 legislative agenda.

Support for marijuana legalization has cut across party lines.

The New Jersey Legislature is controlled by Democrats. The Vermont Legislature is controlled by Republicans.

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., led the successful push back against former Republican Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who promised to get tough on states that had legalized commercial and medical marijuana.

But outgoing Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, was never a big fan, saying on multiple occasions that he would have preferred that Coloradans hadn’t approved legalization.

Governor’s take

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham delivers her inaugural address after taking the oath of office during a ceremony in Santa Fe on Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Lujan Grisham hasn’t commented on the bill supported by Martinez, Ortiz y Pino and others.

But on the campaign trail, she said her support for a recreational cannabis program is contingent on a number of factors.

For starters, she wants the medical marijuana program protected in any legislation legalizing a commercial marijuana industry.

Other areas of concern for her are the prevention of underage use, workplace impairment and a boost to state revenues.

She also wants New Mexico marijuana businesses to get some sort of preference in the early stages of the industry rollout.

“If we invest productively and regulate productively, we can have a successful recreational cannabis program,” Lujan Grisham said on the campaign trail.

The protection of the medical cannabis program is of personal interest to Lujan Grisham. She was secretary of the Department of Health under then-Gov. Bill Richardson when she was charged with overseeing the rollout of the program after it was approved by the Legislature in 2007.

Lujan Grisham touted the success of the program during her gubernatorial campaign.

That program started out relatively small, directed primarily at cancer patients and people with some other conditions, such as glaucoma.

In November, the number of people holding medical cannabis cards around the state had reached nearly 70,000 – about 3.5 percent of the state’s population.

The growth in the program was led by patients with diagnoses for PTSD and chronic pain – cancer was the third-leading diagnosis among cardholders.

Lessons elsewhere

Supporters of legalizing a commercial marijuana industry say they can draw on the experiences of other states – good and bad.

“We can try to emulate the success of Colorado and the revenue it pulls in without reinventing the wheel,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe.

A simple example is that all states that have legalized recreational marijuana have banned its use in public places – usually making it an offense punishable by a fine. States also prohibited people from using marijuana in dispensaries where they buy it.

That seems straightforward enough, until the tourist industry is taken into consideration.

Tourists can buy marijuana legally, but they can’t smoke it in their hotels or outside in parking lots.

States that have legalized recreational marijuana are now considering laws that would allow “smoke shops” where people could buy and smoke marijuana – or just smoke it, with perhaps a cup of coffee.

Supporters want New Mexico to get ahead of that issue by allowing for licensed public places where smoking marijuana would be legal.

Several states that legalized recreational marijuana also failed to address issues surrounding advertising, packaging and warning labels for products containing marijuana. Simple issues such as requiring childproof containers or packages were overlooked.

Legislators and regulators in states including Colorado have had to revisit the marijuana legalization laws to fix those oversights – and even in that state there are robust critics of recreational pot use. A number of communities have opted out of legalized recreational sales.

Colorado approved legalized marijuana by referendum, but former Gov. Hickenlooper – who vetoed three expansion bills – once said that if he had a “magic wand” to reverse marijuana legalization, he would use it.

Now, he says, “If I had that magic wand now, I don’t know if I would wave it.”

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