NM governor urges business leaders to support cannabis bill - Albuquerque Journal

NM governor urges business leaders to support cannabis bill

A proposal to legalize recreational marijuana use and tax its sales is expected to be a hot-button topic during the 30-day legislative session, which starts Jan. 21. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham began her push to try to win over skeptics on the issue of legalizing recreational marijuana use on Thursday, telling Albuquerque business leaders the policy shift would immediately create 11,000 jobs and generate tax dollars that could be used on public safety programs.

With a 30-day legislative session set to start next week, the first-term Democratic governor has made cannabis legalization one of her top priorities, even as Roundhouse insiders have suggested it might not have enough votes to get through the state Senate.

“Recreational cannabis is an economic game-changer,” Lujan Grisham said during a luncheon hosted by the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce.

Specifically, she said legalizing marijuana could open new career options for younger New Mexicans, while also suggesting it could catalyze new research into cannabis’ medicinal properties.

“It is an incredibly important opportunity,” Lujan Grisham said. “We are serious about getting it passed.”

However, the marijuana legalization bill will likely face significant hurdles — in the form of skepticism from moderate Democrats and most Republicans — after failing to clear both legislative chambers in recent years.

The Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, one of the state’s largest business groups, last year opposed legalizing recreational cannabis use, due primarily to concerns about whether businesses could still maintain drug-free workplaces.

The chamber has not yet finalized its agenda for the 30-day session that begins Jan. 21, its CEO and executive director Terri Cole said Thursday.

Meanwhile, the governor’s speech came on the same day the cannabis legalization bill she supports was filed at the Roundhouse.

Under the proposal, Senate Bill 115, revenue generated by legalizing marijuana sales to adults age 21 and older would go toward law enforcement training and equipment, substance abuse treatments programs and the creation of a new fund to help pay for medical cannabis costs for low-income patients.

In addition, the bill calls for state-level licensing and giving local governments some authority to determine where cannabis dispensaries could be located. But unlike in neighboring Colorado, counties would not be able to opt-out by barring cannabis sales.

While the tax rate would vary by location, it would be an average of 19% — or slightly higher than under recommendations proposed last fall by a working group that Lujan Grisham created.

That would allow more revenue to be generated for law enforcement efforts and a proposed fund to help aspiring marijuana entrepreneurs get into the cannabis industry, said Pat Davis, an Albuquerque city councilor who led the governor’s working group.

And unlike under a cannabis legalization bill that passed the House last year and was supported by several Senate Republicans, the bill filed Thursday would not include a provision calling for state-run pot shops.

Meanwhile, New Mexico has already removed some legal barriers to marijuana.

The state’s medical cannabis program had more than 80,000 enrolled members as of last month and has grown rapidly in recent years. In addition, lawmakers approved during last year’s legislative session a new law decriminalizing the possession of less than one-half ounce of marijuana.

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.

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