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Bill to legalize recreational pot is introduced

Leaves are trimmed by hand from marijuana buds. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – A proposal to legalize, tax and regulate the recreational use of marijuana in New Mexico was introduced in the state House on Thursday – the first step in what’s expected to be intense debate over one of the most closely watched bills of the session.

The proposal, House Bill 356, will have to clear two committees before making it to the House floor. It’s been referred to the Health and Human Services Committee, and if passed there, it will go to House Judiciary.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat and one of several co-sponsors, said the legislation isn’t yet in its final form. He said he expects changes as lawmakers wrestle with a variety of policy questions concerning the regulation of cannabis.

The goal, Maestas said, is to learn from laws in other states and craft the best statute in the country.

“The people of New Mexico realize that prohibition doesn’t work,” he said.

The proposal would prohibit cannabis sales to people under 21 and impose a 9 percent excise tax, with revenue going to a variety of health programs, supporters say.

The ultimate fate of the bill is uncertain. Some moderate Democrats in the Senate have expressed opposition to the idea of legalizing recreational cannabis use and have helped block similar proposals in the past.

Newly elected Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, has said she would support legalization under certain circumstances, such as safeguards against use by children and workplace intoxication.

Emily Kaltenbach, New Mexico director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said it’s time to replace a blanket prohibition on recreational marijuana use “with a responsible, regulated system that reinvests in our children and communities.”

Her organization, which supports the bill, said the proposal would automatically and retroactively seal certain cannabis-related criminal records, allow cities and counties to opt out of allowing commercial sales of marijuana, establish a licensing system for business, and raise about $40 million a year in new tax revenue.

In addition to Maeastas, the bill is co-sponsored by Democratic Reps. Javier Martínez and Deborah Armstrong of Albuquerque; Daymon Ely of Corrales; and Angelica Rubio of Las Cruces.

It hasn’t yet been scheduled for its first hearing.

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