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Pearce’s marijuana position sparks rift in GOP

State GOP Chairman Steve Pearce is being criticized by some Republican legislators for opposing marijuana legalization. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – There’s a rift over reefer within the New Mexico Republican Party.

After state GOP Chairman Steve Pearce asserted the party does not support bills to legalize recreational marijuana use – including one pushed by three Republican senators – one of the lawmakers pushed back, saying Pearce should have researched the bill before speaking out.

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, also said Pearce’s unsuccessful bid for governor last year hurt Republican legislative candidates statewide.

“Failed and out-of-touch politicians should speak for themselves and not an entire party,” Moores added in a letter to the Journal scheduled to be published Wednesday.

Pearce, who gave up his southern New Mexico-based congressional seat to run for governor, was elected state Republican Party chairman in December. That was less than two months after he was defeated by Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham in a hard-hitting governor’s race.

In his own letter to the Journal, published Sunday, Pearce suggested that legalizing recreational marijuana sales and use would lead to higher New Mexico crime rates, greater family instability and more traffic accidents.

“Let Colorado over the next five years say if it’s worth it, then we’ll consider this drug,” wrote Pearce, who also opposed recreational cannabis last year on the campaign trail.

In his letter, he said the Republican Party opposes two proposals – House Bill 356 and Senate Bill 577 – that both call for legalizing recreational marijuana use, but would establish different systems for its sales.

The House bill would allow for private dispensaries and personal production licenses, while the Senate bill would create a new state agency to oversee marijuana production, sales and product standards. That version would allow for the sale of marijuana through state-run stores only.

The Senate bill is sponsored by Sens. Moores, Cliff Pirtle of Roswell, and Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho, who are working on it with three Democratic colleagues.

Supporters said during a hearing Monday that it would avoid a proliferation of privately run dispensaries – or the “green mile,” as Pirtle described it. They also said that with an increasing number of states moving toward cannabis legalization – 10 states have already done so – and recent polls showing broad support for the idea among New Mexico voters, legalization is just a matter of time.

“I think unless you live under a rock, you know legalized marijuana is coming,” Moores said.

Most New Mexico Republicans – and some Democrats – have steadfastly opposed proposals to legalize marijuana in recent years.

Former two-term Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican who left office at the end of last year, vowed to veto any marijuana legalization or decriminalization bills that reached her desk. None ultimately did during her eight years in office.

But with Lujan Grisham now New Mexico’s governor, some Libertarian-leaning Republicans have come forward with their legalization plan despite Pearce’s opposition.

“Those who just say no to reality choose a path that leads to a loosely regulated system with a pot store on every block,” Moores said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee did not vote Monday on the legalization bill, with some senators saying the bill needs more work. It has already cleared one Senate committee and must pass two more to reach the full Senate.

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