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New Mexico debates launching a recreational cannabis business

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A medical cannabis plant with a purple color at the Ultra Health growing facility, photographed in 2015. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – An unusual idea is propelling this year’s push to allow recreational marijuana in New Mexico.

The state itself would get into the cannabis business – operating a network of retail stores to sell marijuana to adults 21 and older.

So far, the proposal has made it further than any other marijuana legalization measure in state history, narrowly passing the House in a dramatic late-night vote last week. The measure is now advancing through Senate committees, fueling optimism that there’s at least a narrow path to passage in the final week of the session.

“If any are going to make it, it’ll be this one,” Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, said.

The proposal, House Bill 356, is the result of bipartisan negotiations between a handful of House Democrats and Senate Republicans.

The GOP support is critical – because previous attempts to legalize recreational marijuana have failed in the Senate, where moderate Democrats have joined Republicans in opposition.

A different approach

But this year’s proposal is substantially different from previous attempts at legalization.

A state “Cannabis Control Commission” would operate cannabis shops by summer 2020.

The marijuana would be sold on consignment, meaning the state wouldn’t own the cannabis. It would be grown by private businesses under a complex regulatory system and sold only at state-run stores, with limited exceptions.

It would give the state tremendous control over where and how the products are sold and who can get their product to customers, supporters said.

The idea isn’t as unusual as it sounds, proponents say. Some states have a similar system for alcohol sales, and there are government-run cannabis stores in parts of Canada.

But the system proposed in New Mexico would be the first of its kind for marijuana in the United States, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, a supporter of the bill. Only 10 states altogether have legalized recreational cannabis.

Sen. Cliff Pirtle, a Roswell Republican who’s working on the proposal, said the state-run stores could be used to promote business development among local growers and manufacturers. It would also ensure that cannabis shops aren’t clustered together in a “green mile.”

“You have the ability to control product placement, to prevent the ‘green mile’ as it’s been termed, and it allows your smaller growers and manufacturers to get their product statewide without having to invest a lot in the infrastructure,” Pirtle said. “It’s really a great way for the smaller guys to get their product on the market.”

The idea has managed to soften some of the opposition, though it isn’t clear that it will win Senate approval.

The House vote was very close – 36-34 in favor, with every Republican joining 10 Democrats in opposition.

In the Senate, Democrats hold a 26-16 majority, but enough Democrats have opposed the idea in previous sessions to block its passage.

Pirtle is working with two other Republicans this year – Sens. Mark Moores of Albuquerque and Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho. They’ve argued that legalization is inevitable and that state-run stores would help limit exposure to children and allow New Mexico regulators to respond to problems.

A Democratic senator who has opposed previous legalization proposals, Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, commended the sponsors for their work.

“I think it’s a very innovative idea that we haven’t seen before,” Sen. Cervantes said. “It addresses some of the concerns from the past.”

But he isn’t yet ready to support the bill.

Cervantes said he has critical reservations about how to address impaired driving, including how to detect whether someone is driving under the influence. For alcohol, police can use a breath test.

“There’s nothing like that for marijuana,” Cervantes said. “That makes it very hard to enforce driving under the influence.”

He favors his own proposal, which would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. It has passed the Senate and is now under consideration in the House.

The broader marijuana legalization proposal, House Bill 356, would dedicate some of the tax revenue from cannabis sales to research into cannabis impairment, purchasing roadside testing equipment and to train more police officers as drug recognition experts when drivers are stopped.

Supporters say driving under the influence of marijuana is already illegal and that the bill would set the state on a path to better understand and measure impaired driving.

A government business?

The bill still faces plenty of skepticism.

A hearing in the Senate Public Affairs Committee on Saturday offered a peek at the complex policy decisions lawmakers face if they allow a recreational cannabis industry.

The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce questioned whether it’s appropriate to create a new business sector that’s operated essentially within the government. Medical marijuana producers said they feared the recreational industry would damage their own work.

And others said the measure is too complex to have a good handle yet on potential unintended consequences.

“We would hope you would slow this down,” Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops, told lawmakers Saturday.

But the proposal is still alive. It passed the Senate Public Affairs Committee on a 5-2 vote and now heads to Senate Finance – a final potential barrier to the bill reaching the Senate floor.

Rep. Javier Martinez, an Albuquerque Democrat and sponsor of the bill, is working with Moores and others on amendments at each step – to address the concerns raised in committee hearings and by fellow lawmakers.

“With six days left in the session,” he said, “we had to compromise.”

Any marijuana legalization bill, of course, would also be subject to approval by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

“The governor is encouraged by the possibility of bipartisan and bicameral legislation addressing recreational cannabis,” Lujan Grisham spokesman Nora Sackett said Saturday. “She has said all along she will sign a bill with the proper safeguards for public safety and workplace regulation, among other things. If the Legislature can check those boxes, bring it on.”

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