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 in this year’s general elections, which could give added urgency to passing similar legislation in New Mexico.
“Legalization is coming,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, during a legislative committee hearing in November. “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 during this year’s session.
While he said the new bill would be slimmed down from this year’s version, it would still contain several provisions aimed at protecting New Mexico’s medical cannabis program, which had more than 101,000 enrolled members as of November.
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.
The 2020 defeat came after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham created a marijuana legalization working group to study the issue and come up with recommendations.
Since the 2020 regular 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 the November 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, recently told reporters 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.
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 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.
Specifically, some lawmakers have expressed doubts about revenue and job-creation projections made by legalization supporters.
In addition, the 2020 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 recently 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.
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, there are now 15 states that have legalized recreational marijuana or are in the process of doing so.