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Marijuana legalization advances in House

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers got a peek Saturday at the complexity of establishing a legal marijuana industry that would allow adults 21 and over to smoke or consume cannabis for recreation.

They spent about three hours listening to testimony and poring over concerns about workplace safety, how to measure intoxication in impaired drivers and whether a recreational program would damage New Mexico’s medical cannabis program.

At the center of the debate is a 140-page bill that would legalize, tax and regulate the recreational use of marijuana for adults. The state now allows cannabis only for medical purposes.

The proposal, House Bill 356, cleared its first committee Saturday on a 5-2 vote along party lines, with Democrats in support.

“Prohibition simply does not work,” Democratic Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas of Albuquerque said, “and the country is coming to the realization of that.”

But he and the other four co-sponsors – all Democrats in the House – said they are open to changes aimed at addressing concerns raised by supporters and opponents alike.

Some speakers who addressed the House Health and Human Services Committee on Saturday said they support the concept of legalization, but that they had particular concerns about, say, keeping edible marijuana away from children or how to ensure medical patients have a steady, independent supply of the cannabis products they prefer.

“We are taking all those comments to heart,” Rep. Javier Martinez, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor, told his colleagues. “We want to make sure we do this right.”

Business groups, meanwhile, raised concerns about impairment at work.

The proposal, for example, would prohibit adverse action against employees in the medical marijuana program, unless the worker is in a “safety-sensitive position.”

“We strongly believe that employers must have the right to establish a drug-free workplace and have the ability to enforce that,” said Sherman McCorkle, a businessman who spoke on behalf of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.

The measure is just now getting started as the Legislature approaches the midway point of its 60-day session. To have a chance to become law, it will have to move quickly through a network of committees and win approval from both legislative chambers by mid-March.

The bill’s prospects remain unclear. Some moderate Democrats in the Senate have helped block similar proposals in the past.

Martinez and Maestas said Saturday they have already taken steps aimed at addressing the criticism raised Saturday and in previous sessions.

Licensed marijuana businesses, they said, would have to keep a percentage of their supply dedicated to the medical program.

And cannabis packaging couldn’t targeted at children, the sponsors said.

Maestas, a former prosecutor and defense attorney, said there are police officers trained in recognizing whether drivers are under the influence. Employers, he said, could still prohibit marijuana possession and impairment at work.

House Bill 356 touches on a host of policy questions. As it stands now, the proposal would include:

⋄  Imposing taxes of up to 19 percent on recreational marijuana sales. Annual tax revenue would be in the neighborhood of $56 million, legislative analysts said. The money would go to health, law enforcement and research programs, in addition to city and county governments.

⋄  Allowing cities and counties to opt out of allowing commercial sales of recreational cannabis.

⋄  Expunging criminal records on marijuana arrests and convictions.

The proposal now heads to the House Judiciary Committee, potentially its last stop before the House floor.

Senate approval, of course, would also be required.

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

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