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Legal pot or not? Passage hinges on a few Senate Democrats

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


Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The Legislature will get a look at what comprehensive marijuana legalization might look like for New Mexico.

Whether lawmakers decide to pass it is the big question.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Javier Martinez and Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, both Albuquerque Democrats, would create a major industry that would need to be licensed, taxed and regulated.

Supporters say it would create tax revenue for the state, thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in sales.

The state also would spend millions trying to mitigate any damage legalized pot causes to education, law enforcement and rehabilitation programs.

About 60 percent of likely voters in New Mexico support legalizing recreational cannabis, and the number nationwide is higher.

Supporters here are seeking to have the Legislature legalize recreational cannabis – unlike most other states, which used statewide referendums. “I hope legislators see the benefits of legalization,” Ortiz y Pino said. “It isn’t just about the amount of money the state or local government get from it. It is about jobs and social justice.”

Martinez 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,” Martinez said. “People were asking about funding treatment and education on the issue.”

He said he expects a “lively” – but “sophisticated” – debate on legalization.

Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said, “There’s been some discussion about it. It is a very complicated subject, but we would have to see what the bill looks like.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says she supports legalized recreational marijuana – with important caveats.

She said on the campaign trail and in a statement to the Journal that any legislation reaching her desk would have to “protect medical cannabis patients, improve public safety, deal with prevention of underage use and workplace impairment, boost state revenues, and allow for New Mexico businesses to grow into this new market during an effective transition period.”

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.

Since then, 32 states and the District of Columbia have approved medical marijuana programs.

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

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said in an interview, “My sense is that it isn’t if it will happen, it is when legalization is going to happen.”

War on drugs

In 2016, six Democratic senators voted against putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would have legalized recreational marijuana and charged the Legislature with developing laws to govern the industry.

Those six veteran senators – Mary Kay Papen and Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, John Arthur Smith of Deming, George Muñoz and John Pinto of Gallup, and Clemente Sanchez of Grants – will be returning to Santa Fe. If they remain “no” votes, they would be able to block any bill legalizing recreational marijuana – assuming Republicans are uniformly opposed.

The six veteran Democrats all hold key positions. Papen is president pro tem and serves on the Corporations and Transportation Committee, which Sanchez chairs. Both are on the Senate Rules Committee.

Papen also chairs the Senate Committee on Committees, on which Smith, Muñoz and Sanchez sit.

Smith chairs the powerful Senate Finance Committee, of which Muñoz is a member. Smith is also vice chairman of the powerful Legislative Finance Committee.

Cervantes is chairman of the Senate Conservation Committee and sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, while Pinto is chair of the Senate Indian and Cultural Affairs Committee.

The legislative math is pretty simple: If all 16 Republican senators voted against legalization and were joined by the six Democrats, any marijuana legalization bill would be defeated 22-20.

One defection would lead to a tie, which would enable Lt. Gov. Howie Morales to cast a deciding vote. He presumably would support the governor’s position.

Ingle said he couldn’t speak for the Republican caucus at this point.

“There were Republican votes for a bill to decriminalize marijuana a few years ago that would have made possession a civil fine,” he said.

Republican senators were opposed to putting legalization into a constitutional amendment because “they didn’t believe it belonged in the Constitution,” Ingle said.

Papen said in a recent interview, “My position hasn’t changed. I have some very strong feelings about it. I am deeply concerned about young people getting involved with it.”

Smith, Cervantes, Muñoz and Sanchez all told the Journal they still oppose legalizing recreational marijuana. Pinto couldn’t be reached for comment.

Cervantes, Muñoz and Sanchez all said that legalizing marijuana would only add to the state’s ongoing problems with drunken driving and drug addiction.

Muñoz and Sanchez both told the Journal that tribal leaders in their districts are concerned about drug addiction and alcohol abuse, and are opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana.

In general, opponents are supported by law enforcement, even though marijuana use and possession are low-level priorities compared with other drugs, and prosecutions for possession of small amounts of marijuana are rare.

Law enforcement officials argue that legalization would increase the number of drugged drivers, increase drug use by teens and mask the underground market for marijuana, making it easier for criminal groups to operate.

Proponents say that those arguments are overstated and that the problems could be alleviated by proper regulation and education programs.

“I am hopeful that we can persuade some people that the war on drugs has been a failure,” sponsor Javier Martinez said. “Legalization is a better way to undo the damage caused by the underground market.”

‘Complicated’ bill

The closest analogy to a legalized recreational marijuana industry is that New Mexico would be creating a new liquor industry from scratch, with social, criminal and legal costs that would have to be weighed and dealt with at the outset.

New Mexicans are familiar with the damage booze has done here.

It took decades of work at all levels of government to get New Mexico out of the top five states for deaths attributed to drunken driving accidents.

Over the years, legislators have increased drunken driving penalties, gotten rid of drive-up liquor store windows and made it a felony to sell alcohol to minors.

Proponents argue that cannabis is less lethal than alcohol and that the state has learned from its past problems regulating the liquor industry.

Democratic House members Javier Martinez, Bill McCamley, Antonio “Moe” Maestas, Deborah A. Armstrong and Angelica Rubio sponsored the Cannabis Taxation and Regulation Act HB 312 last session but withdrew the bill because it wasn’t on Gov. Susanna Martinez’s call for the short session.

Martinez said the bill being drawn up for this session varies only slightly from HB-312.

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

McCamley, who didn’t run for his House seat, said that the Democrats’ majority of 44 seats to 26 for Republicans ensures easy passage in the House.

“Two key Democratic members who opposed it are no longer in the House and were replaced by more progressive Democrats,” McCamley said. “The House isn’t the problem. It is the Senate.”

“I think this is more of a generational issue than a partisan issue,” he said.

The Texas Republican Party in December announced support for decriminalization for possession of small amounts of marijuana and support for the federal government to reschedule marijuana, which is now considered the same as heroin and LSD, as Schedule I narcotics.

The bill Martinez and McCamley cosponsored is still being used as a template for how legalizing recreational marijuana would work.

It outlines in some detail how the industry would be taxed and regulated.

It also addressed some of Lujan Grisham’s concerns about establishing the industry.

Under that bill, medical cannabis patients would not pay gross receipts tax on medical marijuana and providers under the medical licenses would have to maintain one-third of their inventory for medical patients if they applied for a recreational sales license.

Some of the controversial provisions in the bill would allow people convicted of state marijuana offenses to have their records expunged, and it would provide workplace protections for employees who use marijuana while on the job.

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.

In some states, the legalizing of recreational marijuana threatened to kill medical cannabis programs.

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