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Pot legalization bill faces hurdles

A working group appointed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham came up with a cannabis legalization road map, delivering its recommendations in October. (Roberto E. Rosales/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.”

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.

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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