Marijuana legalization bill heads to House floor

House Bill 356, which would legalize recreational marijuana use in New Mexico and tax its sales, passed the House Judiciary Committee on Saturday by a 7-3 vote. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A bill that would make New Mexico the 11th state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana use is headed to the full House for the first time in state history after passing its second committee hurdle Saturday.

An alternative bill with bipartisan support is also advancing on the Senate side.

Rep. Javier Martinez

Backers of both measures say it’s inevitable that New Mexico will eventually legalize recreational marijuana use, citing the trend of other states enacting such laws and polls that have shown broad public support for such a policy shift.

“Prohibition has not worked. The war on drugs has been a failure,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, one of the House bill’s sponsors. “I believe that by legalizing recreational cannabis we can turn the war on drugs on its head.”

But the House Judiciary Committee’s decision to advance the legislation, House Bill 356, came only after hours of debate Saturday that featured questions about how to keep cannabis out of the hands of children and increased emergency room visits in neighboring Colorado after voters in that state approved a marijuana legalization proposal in 2012.

The panel ultimately voted 7-3 to pass the legislation after language was added to make it more explicit that employers could still maintain drug-free workplace policies.

“I think we need to make it clear whether they can have such a policy and whether they can enforce it,” said Rep. Greg Nibert, R-Roswell, who used Albuquerque-based mixed martial arts studios as an example of one type of business that could be affected.

The final vote broke down along party lines, with Democrats who were present voting in favor and Nibert and other Republicans voting in opposition.

Previous attempts at the Roundhouse to legalize recreational marijuana use and tax its sales have stalled – with some moderate Democrats voting with GOP lawmakers – but advocates have vowed to keep trying until such a law is approved.

While then-Republican Gov. Susana Martinez steadfastly opposed legalizing cannabis, current Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has said she would support legalization under certain circumstances, such as adequate safeguard against use by children.

Specifically, the House bill approved Saturday would limit marijuana use to New Mexico residents age 21 and older.

It would also impose a tax of at least 17 percent on marijuana sales, with revenue going toward health, law enforcement and research programs, along with state and local governments.

In all, such a tax would generate an estimated $78.1 million by the 2022 budget year, according to a fiscal analysis of the legislation.

The 140-page proposal would also establish a new Cannabis Control Division within an existing state agency, the Regulation and Licensing Department.

Other provisions in the bill include:

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

•  Maintaining the state’s medical marijuana program for patients certified to have one of 22 different qualifying conditions. The program had nearly 69,000 enrolled patients as of last month.

•  Expunging marijuana-related criminal convictions from offender’s records.

•  A personal production limit of six mature plants and six immature for each individual who gets a license to grow.

During Saturday’s bill hearing, the state’s Chief Public Defender Ben Baur testified in favor of the proposal to legalize recreational marijuana use, saying it would reduce caseloads for his office and other parts of the state’s judicial system.

But a lobbyist for the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce spoke against the measure, as did one licensed medical marijuana provider who said legalization could exacerbate an existing black market.

Most states that have legalized recreational marijuana use have done so through voter initiatives. Only one other state, Vermont, has enacted such a law through legislation.

The Senate proposal – co-sponsored by three Republicans who have been working with Democratic colleagues on the bill – would allow for the sale of marijuana through state-run stores. The sponsors say their approach would give the state strong regulatory controls and make it easier to keep cannabis products away from children.

The legislation, Senate Bill 577, cleared its first committee on Saturday without recommendation. It must go through two more committees before reaching the full Senate for consideration.

The bill is co-sponsored by Republican Sens. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell, Mark Moores of Albuquerque and Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho.

Journal staff writer Dan McKay contributed to this report.


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