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Pot legalization team to work from old bill

Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis, at front, chairs Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's cannabis legalization workgroup Wednesday in the Governor's Office in Santa Fe (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis, at front, chairs Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s cannabis legalization workgroup Wednesday in the Governor’s Office in Santa Fe (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – An effort to craft a bill that could make New Mexico the nation’s 12th state to legalize recreational marijuana use won’t be starting from scratch.

The leader of a working group created by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Wednesday at the group’s first meeting that legislation approved by the state House during this year’s legislative session will serve as a template for the task force.

That measure, which eventually stalled in the Senate after being amended, would have imposed 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.

Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis, the leader of the roughly 20-member group, said 63 different cannabis-related bills have been filed at the Roundhouse since 2012. Most of them have been thoroughly analyzed, he said.

“We have a tremendous amount … of resources and New Mexico-based data,” Davis said.

The working group plans to hold at least four more public meetings – including events in Albuquerque and Las Cruces – before making a final recommendation to Lujan Grisham by the end of October.

A proposed legalization bill crafted by the working group could also be presented to legislative interim committees before the start of a 30-day session in January 2020.

Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored this year’s legalization bill and is a member of the working group, expressed optimism about the process and praised Lujan Grisham’s leadership on the issue.

“New Mexico is ready to lead the nation with a comprehensive legalization program that will right the wrongs caused by the failed war on drugs, and develop new and profitable economic opportunities for all New Mexicans,” Martinez said after Wednesday’s meeting.

However, the working group will have to grapple with thorny issues that have tripped up previous marijuana legalization attempts, including public safety concerns and the potential impact to the more than 70,000 enrolled members of the state’s medical cannabis program.

In addition, this year’s bill would have legalized recreational marijuana sold through state-run stores, an idea that drew opposition. The working group will focus on the first version of the bill, which does not include that provision, though later versions will also be studied, Davis said.

A 2020 legalization bill would have to make it through both the House and Senate during an election year – all 112 legislative seats are up for election next year – in order to make it to the governor’s desk for final approval.

Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, who worked with Martinez and other Democrats on this year’s bill and is also a member of the working group, acknowledged election dynamics could be a factor.

“At the end of the day, as legislators we need to not focus on the next election and instead on passing good policy,” Pirtle told the Journal.

Statewide, public support for legalizing cannabis has increased in recent years.

A September 2018 Journal Poll found 60 percent of New Mexico voters surveyed would support legislation to legalize recreational marijuana use and tax its sales, while just 32 percent of registered voters surveyed opposed the idea. Support levels varied in different parts of the state, but a majority of those polled in every region said they would support legalizing cannabis.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office this year, said on the campaign trail that she supports legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for adults but that it must be done in a way that addresses workplace impairment and driving under the influence, keeps marijuana away from children, and meets other requirements.

She also suggested that revenue generated by legalizing recreational cannabis and taxing its sales could be used at least in part to bolster New Mexico’s mental health treatment system.

Shortly after this year’s bipartisan bill legalizing recreational cannabis stalled in the Senate, Lujan Grisham said she would add the issue to the agenda of next year’s 30-day session.

The Governor’s Office then announced the creation of the working group last month, saying it would study other states’ experiences with legal pot. The group will operate under the state’s Open Meetings Act and will hold its next meeting Aug. 14 in Albuquerque, Davis said.

State lawmakers did approve a separate proposal during this year’s session that – starting this month – reduced penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Just two other states – Illinois and Vermont – have legalized marijuana legislatively. The other nine states that have legalized recreational cannabis use have done so through voter petition or referendum efforts, which are not allowed in New Mexico.

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