Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A push to add New Mexico to the growing list of states that have legalized recreational marijuana use has made incremental progress in recent
years but hasn’t reached the finish line.
Backers are hoping this year will be different, as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham directed a working group last summer to come up with a cannabis legalization road map and plans to add the issue to the agenda of the 30-day legislative session that starts this month.
Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored last year’s bill, which passed the House before stalling in a Senate committee, said supporters this year plan to start the bill in the Senate.
“We feel pretty good,” Martínez told the Journal. “We think it’s going to be a good bill.”
However, the cannabis legalization bill will likely face significant hurdles – in the
form of skepticism from moderate Democrats and most Republicans – and at least one lawmaker is accusing the governor of political posturing over pot.
Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, one of three GOP senators to team up with Democratic colleagues last year on a bill that would have allowed for the sale of marijuana through state-run stores, said he’s not optimistic about a legalization bill passing during this year’s session.
He said that’s because last year’s proposal was close to winning approval and could have been brought back with just a few changes – dealing with impaired driving and keeping cannabis products out of minors’ hands – to address concerns.
Instead, the working group’s recommendations used an initial version of last year’s bill as a starting point and do not include the state-run stores provision favored by Moores and others.
“The governor sees this as a political issue and a potential fundraising issue moving forward,” Moores said. “If they really wanted a bill, we could have got a bill passed (during this year’s) session.”
Lujan Grisham, the state’s first-term Democratic governor, has insisted she’s serious about getting a marijuana legalization bill passed.
But she has acknowledged that winning approval of the legalization plan will be difficult, even though the working group she appointed held a series of public meetings this fall and released its final recommendation in October.
“I think cannabis is going to be really hard – it should be,” Lujan Grisham said last month. “That is not something to run into without being really clear.”
17% state tax proposed
The recommendations released by the cannabis legalization working group are far-reaching and based on other states’ experiences.
They include an average tax rate of 17%, 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 who headed the governor’s working group, said he expects the bill’s fate to be decided during the final days of the session, which ends Feb. 20.
He said some law enforcement officials are expected to testify in support of the legislation but acknowledged that persuading wary lawmakers to vote in support of the idea will not be easy.
“I don’t think there’s a big political consequence for voting for it, but I do think it’s going to take some political courage,” he said, citing recent polls showing that most registered New Mexico voters, across all regions of the state, support legalizing recreational marijuana use and taxing its sales.
Davis said supporters have laid the groundwork for the 30-day session by coming up with the recommendations, meeting with legislators and studying potential trouble spots.
As a result, he said, Lujan Grisham supports keeping the proposal largely intact, though there could be attempts made to amend it.
“The framework to how we get to ending cannabis prohibition is really clear, but we’re open to some legislative changes,” Davis told the Journal.
“It’s going to have to have bipartisan support in order to pass,” Davis said.
However, Moores said Lujan Grisham’s pick of Davis – the former executive director of a progressive advocacy group called ProgressNow New Mexico – to lead the task force could alienate Republicans and some moderate Democrats.
“I think the task force muddied the waters and got us further from getting something accomplished,” Moores said.
Legal in 11 states
Nationwide, 11 states and the District of Columbia now have laws legalizing small amounts of marijuana for adult recreational use, with Colorado and Washington the first states to approve such policies in 2012.
However, just two states – Vermont and Illinois – have approved cannabis legalization laws through the legislative process; other states have done so through ballot measures.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said he believes last year’s bill would have passed and made it to the governor’s desk for final approval if it had reached the Senate floor in its final form.
He said in a recent interview that he’s encouraged by the task force’s work but that fellow Democrats raised concerns during a recent caucus meeting about how legalization would affect New Mexico’s medical cannabis program and how tax dollars generated by the proposal would be divvied up.
“You can’t just see this as a revenue booster,” Wirth said, indicating new revenue should be earmarked for treatment, behavioral health and education, and possibly other similar programs.
Democrats hold sizable majorities in both legislative chambers, but Wirth said that’s no guarantee cannabis legalization will make it to the governor’s desk.
“There’s bipartisan support and there’s bipartisan opposition,” he said.
New Mexico lawmakers moved during last year’s legislative session to approve a law decriminalizing the possession of less than one-half ounce of marijuana, but Rep. Martínez said legalization is still needed and is fundamentally different because it would generate revenue for the state.
“This is different – this is about creating a well-regulated industry,” Martínez said.
He also said that backers will keep trying if they’re unsuccessful during this year’s session, but he acknowledged a sense of urgency
“I think if we wait too long we’re going to miss the opportunity to legalize recreational marijuana the right way,” Martínez said.