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Legal pot or not? Building a new industry

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


Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

If New Mexico lawmakers go down the road to legalized recreational marijuana, they will need to create a bureaucracy to regulate and tax the new industry.

Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, one of the main sponsors of legislation that will be introduced in the coming session, doesn’t even try to downplay the complexity of dealing with a wide range of issues, including who can sell it, where it can be consumed and whether the current definition of “drug-free workplace” will be significantly changed.

“It is very complicated and technical,” he said.

After all, supporters predict that legalization of marijuana would create up to 11,000 jobs and generate more than $100 million in tax revenue – claims that opponents say are inflated and don’t take into account the social costs that could come with pot dispensaries on every corner.

Martinez and Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino offered marijuana legalization legislation last year but withdrew it because it was not on the call for the 30-day session in Santa Fe.

That little-publicized bill forms the basis of a measure they will introduce this year, with some revisions based on research done over the past year. “We’ll be introducing a slightly different version,” Martinez said, adding that he and other supporters spent the past year meeting with people across the state to hear their concerns and consider ways to address them.

Ortiz y Pino said important details may be missing because state agencies under the administration of outgoing Republican Gov. Susana Martinez were not cooperative.

“We have to get information from state agencies to find out how they will be impacted and what they need,” Ortiz y Pino said. “We weren’t getting that.”

Gov. Martinez’s office said Ortiz y Pino never contacted her office about the issue.

Workers at Los Suenos Farms, a large open-air marijuana farm in Colorado, transport newly harvested marijuana plants. (Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)

One thing is for sure: There will be plenty of questions.

Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said that representing a large agricultural district brings to mind a series of questions.

“How do you license growers? How many plants? Is it by the individual plant or the acre? Those are just some of the questions that come to my mind,” Ingle said.

The bill that was introduced would allow growers to operate in any part of the state and would charge an excise tax per plant.

The bill would keep medical marijuana patient registration with the state Department of Health, but all licensing would be moved to the Department of Regulation and Licensing – the agency that oversees liquor licenses.

Other state agencies would have some responsibility for drafting regulations on marijuana growers and manufacturers who make marijuana oil and edible marijuana products.

Jeremy Vaughan, president of the New Mexico State Police Association, said the organization made up of current and retired officers doesn’t have a formal position on whether marijuana should be legalized but it does have concerns about who will police the industry.

“We also have concerns about where the licensing is placed,” Vaughan said. “Right now, it will be put in the Regulation and Licensing Department. We believe it should be in the Department of Public Safety, like it is in Colorado.”

‘Social justice’

Many of the provisions deal with legal issues, ranging from local option elections to allow marijuana dispensaries to how taxes would be paid and shared between the state and local governments.

Some of the issues are basic to the industry – testing and packaging the marijuana – and wouldn’t garner much interest from the public.

But others are sure to spark some controversy. Among them:

• Erasing and destroying arrest and conviction records for marijuana-related criminal cases in state courts.

• Allowing people on parole or probation to use marijuana.

• Dismissing convictions of people currently serving prison, jail or other sentences for marijuana crimes.

“We are confronting generations of injustice in the enforcement of marijuana laws,” Javier Martinez said. “I expect a lot of debate.”

Supporters of the legalization effort say the New Mexico bill will put forth some unique efforts to help communities most affected by drug addiction and try to help people who have criminal records because of marijuana arrests or convictions.

Emily Kaltenbach

Emily Kaltenbach, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said, “There is an element of social justice for communities hit hardest by enforcement of marijuana prohibition.”

Under the legislation, the state would set aside 2 percent of the net taxes on legal marijuana to create a fund that would give grants to organizations working on drug education programs and workforce training and placement in those communities.

Javier Martinez said legalization should also allow as many people as possible to participate in the new marketplace.

Under last year’s bill, people with marijuana-related criminal arrests and convictions would not be prohibited from working in the new industry and would be allowed to apply for licenses. Low-income applicants would get priority in the licensing process.

The legislation would allow for creation of “cannabis microbusinesses” that operate in less than 10,000 square feet. These businesses could be licensed to grow, package, sell or transport marijuana or marijuana products to other licensed businesses.

“All of this is especially important to communities that have been impacted by drug addiction and the war on drugs,” Martinez said.

The promotion of small, locally owned businesses also recognizes the reality that larger corporations are moving into the marijuana industry in larger markets.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she wants a transition period for New Mexico businesses to grow into the new market.

Under the bill, applicants for industry licenses would have to show two years of continuous residency in New Mexico, and licensing fees would be based on the size of the business, similar to fees for craft beer brewers.

Opting in or out

Kaltenbach said there are some basic areas of agreement in states that have legalized recreational marijuana.

Among them:

• Local communities can decide to opt out of allowing licensed marijuana dispensaries to sell in their towns or cities, but cultivation of marijuana is allowed statewide.

• Local communities are not allowed to prohibit possession or consumption of marijuana.

• A municipality within a county that has voted to prohibit marijuana sales could vote to allow their sale.

• Only those ages 21 and over can purchase marijuana.

• Marijuana has to be tested at state-approved laboratories for potency and chemicals such as pesticides and herbicides.

• Money from marijuana taxes are set aside to evaluate the impact on the state.

“We’re trying to allow New Mexico to create its own model in creating this industry,” Kaltenbach said. “It is complex.”

Not everyone is buying the arguments in favor of legalization.

Kyle Williamson, special agent in charge of the El Paso office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said, “It is beyond my comprehension why a state like New Mexico with its historical problems with drug abuse would even consider legalizing marijuana.”

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