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Cannabis legalization bill derailed in Senate panel

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Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis, Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, and Emily Kaltenbach of the Drug Policy Alliance wait to respond to questions about a cannabis legalization bill during a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday. The bill was tabled on a 6-4 vote and is unlikely to be revived during this year’s 30-day legislative session. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The push to add New Mexico to the ranks of states that have legalized recreational cannabis for adult use will have to wait another year.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-4 late Wednesday to table a high-profile marijuana legalization bill, as two Democrats joined with Republicans to block it from advancing.

Backers acknowledged the measure is all but dead for this year’s 30-day session, which ends next week, but said they plan to try again in 2021.

“We’d have no chance of getting it through now,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, said in an interview after Wednesday’s vote. “This is a setback, but I think in the long run it will produce a better bill.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had added the cannabis legalization bill to the sessions’s agenda, and said after the vote that it’s inevitable that New Mexico will legalize marijuana – although it won’t happen this year.

“I am disappointed but not deterred by tonight’s committee motion. The door remains open. We will keep working to get it done,” the Democratic governor said in a statement. “And ultimately we will deliver thousands of careers for New Mexicans in a new and clean and exciting industry, a key new component of a diversifying economy.”

However, several prominent business groups and the state’s Conference of Catholic Bishops were among those opposing the bill, which critics described as too far-reaching.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, lacerated the bill with a string of questions and observations.

Among other things, he questioned why the bill would give labor unions a key role in determining who would get marijuana dispensary licenses.

“I’m not comfortable with us deciding who are going to be the kingpins of a new industry,” Cervantes said in Wednesday’s debate.

He was ultimately joined in voting to table the bill by Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Ojo Caliente, and the committee’s four Republican members – Sens. Mark Moores of Albuquerque, Ron Griggs of Alamogordo, Bill Payne of Albuquerque and Greg Baca of Belen.

The panel’s other Democratic members who were present for the debate voted against tabling the bill.

Stubborn opposition

This year’s bill, Senate Bill 115, cleared its first Senate committee last month but languished for nearly two weeks before being taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Among other provisions, it calls for state-level licensing, expunging marijuana possession convictions from individuals’ criminal records and giving local governments some authority to determine where cannabis dispensaries could be located.

Although tax rates would vary by city and county, the average statewide tax rate would be about 20%, backers say.

That revenue would be earmarked for substance abuse programs, a subsidy fund for low-income medical cannabis patients and law enforcement equipment and training, among other uses.

“The point of this is to do the same thing we do … with tobacco and alcohol,” Ortiz y Pino said during Wednesday’s debate.

He also said legalization would not encourage the use of cannabis, as many New Mexicans already use marijuana they get either as medical marijuana patients or from the black market.

However, critics argued that legalizing marijuana could erode drug-free workplace policies and lead to more impaired drivers on the state’s roadways.

“We are pleased the Legislature chose not to rush into this,” Terri Cole, president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, said after Wednesday’s vote. “It would have created significant challenges for workers and employers alike.”

New strategy?

The defeat of this year’s marijuana legalization proposal marks the latest in a string of setbacks for proponents at the Roundhouse.

It could also lead to a new strategy.

In the run-up to this year’s session, Lujan Grisham created a working group and tasked the group with crafting recommendations that could lead to New Mexico becoming the 12th state to legalize recreational marijuana use for adults and tax its sales.

However, Ortiz y Pino said that most legislators did not have time to fully digest the measure despite that process and that the final version may have been too complicated.

“We just need to simplify the bill,” he told the Journal.

Voter support for legalizing recreational cannabis and taxing its sales has steadily increased in recent years, as 61% of New Mexico adults surveyed in a recent Journal Poll said they support legalization, while 33% said they opposed the idea.

Lujan Grisham cited the public support for the issue in suggesting she won’t stop pushing for cannabis legalization.

“Poll after poll has demonstrated that New Mexicans want a 21st century economy and want cannabis to be part of it,” she said, adding that the policy shift would create new career opportunities for New Mexicans and give more options to those convicted of low-level drug offenses.

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