Legal cannabis push gets road map

A working group created in June by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has released its recommendations for legalizing recreational cannabis use and taxing its sales. If approved, the plan would make New Mexico the 12th state to legalize marijuana. (Richard Vogel/Associated Press)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A plan to make New Mexico the nation’s 12th state to legalize recreational marijuana use and tax its sales was released Wednesday, giving state lawmakers a road map to follow during the coming 30-day legislative session.

But the proposal, crafted by a working group created by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, could face obstacles – if not a dead end – in the form of skeptical legislators who have derailed similar proposals in recent years.

The recommendations released Wednesday include an average tax rate of 17%, testing and labeling requirements, state-level licensing, taking revenue generated by legalization to subsidize the state’s medical cannabis program and giving local governments some authority to determine where cannabis dispensaries could be located.

Pat Davis, an Albuquerque city councilor and leader of the working group, said members studied other states’ experiences with marijuana legalization and sought to avoid some of the pitfalls – including high tax rates that have pushed some cannabis users to the black market.

“What we’re trying to do is not replicate the bad models and to do something different,” Davis told the Journal.

Although many of the recommendations are based on a bill that passed the state House earlier this year, some provisions would be different.

One example is a proposed requirement that in the case of a supply shortage, licensed cannabis dispensaries would have to serve medical marijuana patients before recreational users.

In addition, some revenue generated by recreational cannabis sales would be used to eliminate the gross receipts tax on medical marijuana products and create a new low-income patient assistance fund.

“That’s a real incentive for patients to stay in the program,” said Davis, who likened the idea to “Medicaid for marijuana.”

Enrollment in New Mexico’s medical cannabis program, launched in 2007, has steadily increased in recent years and exceeded 78,000 statewide as of last month, according to the Department of Health.

Lujan Grisham has voiced support for legalizing recreational marijuana use in New Mexico but only with certain safeguards – including protecting the medical cannabis program, clear labeling requirements and ensuring public and workplace safety.

A spokeswoman for the first-term Democratic governor said the recommendations released Wednesday appeared to address those concerns.

“The governor will be reviewing the recommendations, and the next steps will be to incorporate the recommendations of this working group into balanced legislation and working to win the support of legislators and stakeholders ahead of the session,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said.

However, that could prove to be a difficult task.

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, said Wednesday that a legalization bill would face hurdles during the 30-day session.

He said some Native American leaders have expressed concern about the impact of marijuana legalization on tribal lands that already have high alcohol abuse rates and said the state’s current $2.3 billion estimated budget surplus means more revenue is not urgently needed.

“We’ve got plenty of money – let’s slow down and do it right,” Muñoz told the Journal.

However, he also said that technological improvements in detecting cannabis impairment – specifically when it comes to driving under the influence – could make him more likely to support a marijuana legalization bill.

Lujan Grisham created the marijuana legalization working group in June, after the legalization bill stalled in the Senate in the final days of this year’s 60-day legislative session.

The task force held several hearings around the state this summer before releasing its final recommendations. The group intends to present its plan to at least two legislative interim committees next month in an attempt to gain support in advance of the coming session.

Meanwhile, an economist cited in Wednesday’s report has projected that marijuana legalization in New Mexico could create 11,000 jobs and generate $318 million in revenue in its first year of implementation, with that figure increasing in future years.

But other experts have cautioned that revenue collected from cannabis sales is difficult to predict, due to market forces, the possibility of federal action and the potential for new states to enter the market.

Members of the working group said Wednesday that they are optimistic about a marijuana legalization bill winning legislative approval next year – it’s expected to be sponsored by Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque – but plan to keep pushing the issue even if comes up short.

“If they don’t pass this next year, we’ll be right back the following year with the same bill,” Davis said.

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