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Editorial: Haze of unknowns clouds legislation on recreational cannabis

If you think the major concerns surrounding legalizing recreational cannabis are addressed in the whopping 173-page bill working its way through the Legislature, you must be smoking something.

Because Senate Bill 115/House Bill 160 does not tackle many of the concerns expressed last session – concerns that prompted the governor to create a 19-plus-member Cannabis Legalization Working Group to evaluate other states’ experiences with cannabis. Instead, it raises myriad new concerns.

Granted, many people – including Albuquerque City Councilor and working group lead Pat Davis – have put in a lot of work trying to come up with a workable solution. Davis and other advocates say “everyone who wants to is already using illegal pot” or “legalization is inevitable.”

They insist this new industry would create up to 11,000 new jobs and point out that the full impact would not take effect until Jan. 1, 2022, allowing time to work out details.

But there are some important things to know about cannabis and this particular piece of legislation:

The timelines don’t track. Existing medical cannabis retailers actually can begin selling to recreational consumers on Jan. 1, 2021. That’s the same day the rules determining everything from how the state will issue licenses to how businesses will track their product from seed to sale will be written. Not only will those retailers be forced to comply on the fly, but the mandatory server training rules don’t even have to be written until April 1, 2021.

It won’t raise that much tax money, and it’s already taken. The bill’s Fiscal Impact Report says the 9% excise tax on recreational pot is expected to raise $24.5 million for the state in fiscal 2024 – all earmarked to seven funds directed at community grants, patient subsidies, substance abuse treatment, law enforcement, cannabis startups, workforce training and DWI education. Gross receipts taxes are projected to bring in $9.37 million to the general fund that year. Municipalities and counties are allowed to impose up to a 4% excise tax. Medical pot will be exempt from state excise tax and GRT.

Local governments can’t ban any category of license. And while they can in theory limit activity to one business in each category and set zoning requirements, that’s ripe for a court challenge.

A convicted meth or heroin dealer can set up shop. Licenses can’t be denied solely because someone has done time for “possession, use, manufacture, distribution or dispensing or the possession with the intent to manufacture, distribute or dispense a controlled substance.”

Customers have to be 21, but servers can be 18. How does that make any sense?

Recreational buyers can get more pot than medical patients. Current law limits medical users to 8 ounces every 90 days; recreational users will be able to buy 2 ounces every transaction. Businesses are supposed to reserve enough for the 80,000-plus medical buyers, but they are concerned about shortages, especially because:

There is no increase in the number of plants growers are allowed. Medical pot magnate Duke Rodriguez of Ultra Health says current caps make the governor’s goal of 11,000 jobs and $600 million in revenue unachievable. Proponents say it will be taken care of in rulemaking.

Using is totally legal. While a strong argument can be made that last year’s decriminalization law didn’t go far enough (there are still penalties for a half ounce, for heaven’s sake), this year’s bill includes automatic expungement of marijuana arrests and convictions, strikes marijuana from the substances banned from drug-free school zones and says use cannot affect parole or custody cases.

Black-market marijuana sales won’t go away. A new Department of Justice report says state-level legalization actually gives criminal drug trafficking organizations cover for large grow operations – in fact, California has had to resort to calling out the National Guard to combat them.

Impaired driving is still a concern. AAA says the number of traffic fatalities in which drivers tested positive for marijuana doubled in Washington state after legalization. In the bill, DWI is dealt with via a one-year pilot program using mouth swabs with no set levels of presumed intoxication.

There is zero mention of drug-free workplaces. Davis said this allows businesses to set their own rules. Others say this would set businesses up for lawsuits.

There are plenty of mentions of health risks. But only for minors and in the medical section. In fact, cannabis use – especially in chronic users – has been linked to schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, suicide, significant abnormalities in brain function and structure, and lower IQ. Should “because everyone is already doing it” really be sufficient reason to open the door to yet another vice?

There are simply too many unanswered questions, too many contradictions and too hard of a push to get recreational cannabis through in a short 30-day budget session. Lawmakers need to take a sober look at what this bill will and won’t do before joining recreational cannabis states.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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