SANTA FE – A proposal to legalize recreational marijuana in New Mexico began moving through the Senate on Tuesday, clearing its first legislative hurdle and opening debate on one of the most controversial bills of the session.
The legislation, Senate Bill 115, would allow limited sales starting next year, with broader commercial sales authorized in 2022.
The proposal passed its first Senate committee Tuesday on a party-line vote, with Democrats in favor. The proposal must clear two more committees before reaching the full Senate – no sure thing in a chamber where some Democratic leaders have expressed reservations about legalization.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is throwing her weight behind the proposal this session, describing it as a sensible way to create thousands of jobs, generate revenue and regulate what’s now a black market.
In a hearing before the Senate Public Affairs Committee, supporters said legalization would also help address uneven law enforcement.
“The criminalization of cannabis disproportionately harms young people and people of color,” Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said Tuesday as he presented the legislation.
Opponents, in turn, said now isn’t the right time for the bill. They said
it would erode employers’ right to maintain a drug-free workplace, make it more difficult to keep impaired drivers off the road and increase crime.
One key problem, they said, is the lack of technology available to quickly determine intoxication levels – similar to, say, a breath test for alcohol.
“The technology simply doesn’t exist,” said Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. “This creates serious challenges.”
The 173-page bill would establish a subsidy program to help low-income medical cannabis patients, create a roadside drug testing pilot project and allow sales of marijuana to adults ages 21 and older.
Medical cannabis providers could sell to recreational users beginning Jan. 1 next year, if the Department of Health determines it won’t harm the supply for people in the medical program.
Broader commercial sales would start a year later, in 2022.
A series of state, city and county taxes could be imposed on cannabis, with revenue set aside for a number of specific purposes, ranging from law enforcement to health and economic development.
There are also provisions for expungement of past marijuana arrests and convictions.
Candelaria, an attorney, said the lack of an accepted cannabis breath test – similar to what’s available for alcohol – isn’t a barrier to law enforcement. Police officers already are trained to detect impairment, and drivers can be convicted, for example, without a specific breath alcohol test.
Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, said he wasn’t convinced the questions are settled.
“We have to be very, very careful where we’re going here – the definitions, how we do this,” Ingle said.
The bill will head next to the Senate Judiciary Committee and, if passed there, move to the Finance Committee.
This year’s push comes after a marijuana legalization bill narrowly passed the state House last year but stalled in the Senate. That proposal called for state-run cannabis stores, an idea not included in this year’s measure.
Legislators last year, in any case, did agree to reduce penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, making it a $50 civil citation, not a criminal conviction.
The proposal passed Tuesday is jointly sponsored by Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino and Rep. Javier Martínez, both Albuquerque Democrats.