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Proponents of cannabis legalization like their chances

Voters in four states approved legalizing recreational cannabis for adult users last week, bringing the number of states with such laws on their books to 15 nationwide. New Mexico lawmakers are expected to debate a legalization bill during the 60-day legislative session that starts in January. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Backers of a push to add New Mexico to the list of states that have legalized recreational cannabis for adult users say 2021 could be the year they break through, after years of hitting dead ends at the Roundhouse.

Several influential legislative opponents of marijuana legalization were defeated in this year’s primary election, improving the odds a revised bill might make it to the Senate floor for a vote.

In addition, voters in Arizona and three other states approved cannabis legalization measures last week, which could give added urgency to passing similar legislation in New Mexico.

“Legalization is coming,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, during a Tuesday legislative committee hearing. “Here in New Mexico, I think people are ready for it.”

Martinez said he plans to introduce legislation during the 60-day session that starts in January that would be similar to a bill filed last year.

While he said the bill would be slimmed down from last year’s version, it would still contain several provisions aimed at protecting New Mexico’s medical cannabis program, which had more than 98,000 enrolled members as of September.

Specifically, some of the money generated by recreational cannabis sales would be used to eliminate the gross receipts tax on medical marijuana products and create a new assistance fund for low-income patients, Martinez said.

Bills to legalize recreational cannabis have stalled in the Senate in each of the last two years.

Last year’s defeat came after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham created a marijuana legalization working group to study the issue and come up with recommendations.

Since last year’s session, however, five moderate incumbent Democrats were ousted by more progressive challengers in the June primary election, and three of those progressive Democrats went on to win election to the Senate in last week’s general election.

One of the defeated incumbents is Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who declined to hold a vote on a 2019 legalization bill, saying it did not have the votes necessary to pass his committee.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, told reporters last week he expects the House will pass a cannabis legalization bill during the upcoming 60-day session and said it appears the bill will get a “much friendlier” reception in the Senate.

“I think its chances are much improved,” Egolf said.

Cooperation possible

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, who was one of several Senate Republicans who filed a legalization bill in 2019 that called for state-run pot stores, said he was open to working with Democrats on new legislation in 2021.

But he cautioned that for a bill to win bipartisan support it would need to allow businesses to maintain drug-free workplaces and include provisions for keeping cannabis out of young children’s hands.

“I think there’s a number of senators and representatives on both sides who are willing to work on the issue,” Moores said in a recent interview.

While recent polls have shown strong voter support in New Mexico for legalizing recreational cannabis use, passage of such a bill during the upcoming session is no slam dunk.

Sen. Bill Tallman, D-Albuquerque, expressed doubts during Tuesday’s meeting of the Economic and Rural Development Committee about how much money cannabis legalization could generate, and he questions claims that it would create roughly 15,000 new jobs statewide.

“I find it kind of hard to believe this is going to generate more jobs than oil and gas and their support industries,” Tallman said.

Last year’s bill was also opposed by several prominent business groups and the state’s Conference of Catholic Bishops, who described the legislation as too far-reaching.

And even some legalization backers have voiced concern over cannabis supply issues, with Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, saying Tuesday that current plant limits on medical cannabis producers have led to chronic market shortages.

New Mexico already has a marijuana decriminalization law on its books, as Lujan Grisham last year signed into law a bill that made possession of up to a half-ounce of cannabis a civil offense punishable with a $50 fine.

But the governor and other supporters say legalization is still necessary, arguing it would generate tax dollars that could be used on public safety programs.

Governor’s support

A Lujan Grisham spokesman said Tuesday the governor’s position on the issue has not changed since last year, and the governor said the state’s budget situation would be more stable now if previous legalization proposals had been enacted.

In addition to Arizona, the other three states that recently approved legalizing cannabis sales to those 21 and older were Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota.

With those four additions, there are now 15 states that have legalized recreational marijuana or are in the process of doing so.

But Duke Rodriguez, president and CEO of Ultra Health LLC, one of the state’s largest licensed medical cannabis producers, said New Mexico still has the potential to woo tourists – especially from neighboring Texas – by legalizing recreational marijuana.


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