When I started out as a young police officer 20 years ago, no one thought twice about arresting someone for marijuana. And we did it a lot.
But the fact is, those arrests and the reefer madness that preceded them were well-intentioned, but misguided. Today, states are charting a new course on criminal justice reform, tossing aside prohibition laws, and revitalizing declining agricultural and manufacturing sectors with new investments in cannabis. Legalization of cannabis is not a question of if, but when.
Earlier this year, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asked me to lead a group to study legalization for New Mexico. Alongside more than 20 other New Mexicans, including medical cannabis patients, producers, law enforcement, and Democratic and Republican legislators alike, we set out to study what might really happen if New Mexico joined the wave of legalized states. In 30 hours of public hearings around the state and in more than 200 pages of public input since, we heard from more than a few skeptics and outright opponents.
We did not begin by assuming legalization was right for New Mexico now. Judging by early stumbles in states like Colorado and California, we were right to be wary.
We listened to police chiefs and sheriffs who had heard of new burdens on their colleagues in early legalization states.
And we heard from mayors and county commissioners who want new funds for education, treatment and policing, but don’t want to raise local taxes.
And medical patients testified about struggles with access and affordability.
But as we dug deeper into those concerns, our workgroup became convinced that we could do better.
“Illicit” or “black” markets, for example, were the unintended outcomes of well-intentioned legislation we don’t have to copy. As a city councilor, I know that what’s right for my Albuquerque district might not work for Roswell or Roosevelt County. That’s why we voted to give each county and community local control to determine where and when new cannabis retail can operate.
To address the inevitable bad actors – and help fight other underfunded challenges – we propose setting aside up to $1,000 per officer annually to be used by local agencies for enhanced training, local overtime or community policing. Cannabis revenue can help local agencies beef up enforcement on a variety of issues, while also helping officers identify and prosecute those who drive on opiates and meth, not just cannabis.
For patients, we recommend requiring every new licensee to serve adult-use and medical customers – expanding access and creating product diversity. And we can create a 7% discount on medical products by making medical cannabis tax-free, subsidized by new adult-use taxes. For low-income users, we propose a new subsidy fund, paid for by a tax on adult-use products.
And, in a first for any legalized state, our “patients-first” model would require licensees to reserve products for patients up front, so supply shortages impact adult-use customers, not patients.
Equity programs have been afterthoughts elsewhere. Not for us. With more than 11,000 jobs needing to be filled in new cannabis farms and businesses, we need every community to be ready. Our proposals for tribal cannabis compacts and cannabis job training in community colleges create a framework to share the economic boom. Most important to those individuals targeted by all of those arrests I and others effected, we’ve outlined programs investing in job training, license ownership and community reinvestment to restore harms done by prohibition.
Finally, with the addition of new advisory boards to monitor health and safety outcomes, and millions for prevention and tough regulation, we are confident New Mexico’s regulators can manage this program and act quickly to intervene with the inevitable bad actors. For that, we recommended a hybrid state-store/private-store licensing structure, state-licensed and privately operated, a compromise recognizing the anxiety over this new industry while also preserving market freedoms necessary to grow local jobs.
More than two-thirds of New Mexicans support legalization. Most of the rest see it coming. As one of our sheriffs told the group, “If you find a bill the sheriffs, ACLU and defense attorneys can all support, you should pass it.” Building on our recommendations, the Legislature can do just that.
Pat Davis is an Albuquerque city councilor representing District 6.