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Marijuana legalization bill passes House

A mature medical cannabis plant is cultivated at the Ultra Health growing facility in 2015. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

A mature medical cannabis plant is cultivated at the Ultra Health growing facility in 2015. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico lawmakers late Thursday pushed the state closer than ever toward legalizing recreational marijuana for adults.

In a late-night debate on the House floor, Democratic Rep. Javier Martinez of Albuquerque unveiled legislation crafted after bipartisan, bicameral talks involving House Democrats and Senate Republicans.

The state House passed the bill 36-34 – the first recreational marijuana proposal ever passed by one of New Mexico’s legislative chambers. No Republican voted for the bill.

Martinez, a co-sponsor of the legislation, House Bill 356, said the vote was a “watershed” moment in the movement to legalize cannabis in New Mexico.

“This is truly a compromise bill,” he said as he unveiled changes to the original proposal.

Legalization has faced skepticism from some moderate Democrats in the Senate, where previous bills have failed.

But three Republican senators have been working with Democrats this session on a legalization proposal, providing a narrow path to approval if they can carry a bipartisan bill through both the House and Senate.

Martinez said Thursday that the House bill now includes a variety of ideas originally contained in the Senate version – including a plan to offer retail sales of marijuana largely at state-run stores. Private businesses could sell recreational cannabis in certain circumstances, such as if a state store isn’t nearby.

The compromise, Martinez said, also would require people to keep receipts showing they purchased their marijuana legally, and they could carry only 1 ounce of cannabis and couldn’t grow it on their own – in contrast to the previous version of the House proposal.

Martinez said he and his colleagues gave up quite a bit in the spirit of compromise. Republican Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell – a co-sponsor of the Senate bill – sat with Martinez during the House debate as an expert witness.

Although no House Republicans voted for the bill, there had been signs that one or more might support it. Still, the debate might have softened some of the opposition.

“I like the state control,” Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen, said during the debate. “I know this took a lot of work.”

The state-run stores – an idea that first surfaced in the Senate bill – appeal to many because it would give the state strong regulatory controls and make it easier to keep cannabis products away from children, supporters said.

The compromise bill, supporters say, also makes it clear that employers could still maintain drug-free workplace policies.

Recreational marijuana sales could begin in mid-2020. Taxes on cannabis sales would be in the range of 17 percent.

“Prohibition does not work,” Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor, told his colleagues. “Let’s put the cartels out of business.”

Opponents of the bill, in turn, raised questions about worsening New Mexico’s problem with impaired drivers, conflicts with federal law and a variety of potential unintended consequences. Some complained that it was difficult to digest such a complex proposal given all the changes in the new version.

“We’re ignoring federal law,” House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said.

More changes to the proposal, of course, might be in store.

Each chamber must approve identical legislation by noon March 16 to send a bill to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

“With nine days left in the session,” Pirtle said in an interview, “there’s plenty of time.”

Lujan Grisham has said she is open to legalizing recreational marijuana, but only if there are safeguards to prevent use by children, protect the medical marijuana program, and address workplace intoxication and driving under the influence.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office Jan. 1, succeeded Republican Susana Martinez, who opposed legalization.

Getting the legislation to the governor may hinge on winning over some Republican senators.

Besides Pirtle, Republican Sens. Mark Moores of Albuquerque and Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho have been working on marijuana legalization. They have been working with Democratic senators, too.

But their proposal, Senate Bill 577, hasn’t advanced as far as the House bill has. It has cleared two committees and must pass one more before reaching the full Senate for consideration.

“The possibility of bipartisan compromise between the House and Senate is very real,” House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, told reporters Thursday.

Journal Capitol Bureau Chief Dan Boyd contributed to this article.


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