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House passes bill to legalize marijuana in NM

Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, appears on screen Friday as he presents a bill to legalize cannabis use for adults in New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The push to legalize marijuana use for adults in New Mexico won approval in the state House late Friday, sending the proposal on to the Senate for the final, crucial weeks of the session.

If signed into law, the legislation, House Bill 12, would allow the first commercial sales to begin Jan. 1 next year.

Rep. Javier Martinez, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, said passage of the measure would be a blow to drug cartels and allow New Mexico to regulate the cannabis market to promote safety.

He described the legislation as a “work in progress” reflecting lessons learned in 14 other states that have legalized cannabis use.

“This bill has been vetted,” Martinez said. “This is a big deal, and it should be.”

Friday’s debate came just two years after the House adopted a recreational cannabis measure 36-34 only to see it die in the Senate. But this year’s bill heads to a new-look Senate, where more than one-quarter of the members are new to the chamber.

The legislation ran into heavy opposition from House Republicans during Friday’s three-hour debate. Republicans argued – without success – in favor of an amendment to allow local governments to opt out of marijuana sales.

“I don’t think the state of New Mexico is in the habit of forcing communities to do things against their will,” Rep. Randal Crowder, R-Clovis, said.

But Democrats said allowing opt-outs would create a confusing legal checkerboard.

New Mexico already offers a medical cannabis program. But the House legislation would open up sales more broadly to adults 21 or older.

It would impose an 8% excise tax on sales at cannabis retailers, and cities and counties could impose taxes of up to 4%. The combined maximum tax rate in New Mexico could reach 21.4% – roughly in line with what’s allowed in Arizona and almost 5 percentage points lower than Colorado’s max rate.

It could generate about $44 million in new tax revenue for the state government and $24 million for local governments a year by 2024, though legislators made changes to the bill Friday that might reduce some of the revenue. Recreational sales could begin as soon as Jan. 1 next year by certain companies, such as those with a medical cannabis license. Other license applications would be accepted starting in July next year.

The bill would allow New Mexicans to grow up to six mature cannabis plants.

Smoking in public would be prohibited, but retail stores could offer space for consumption.

Under the proposal, employers generally couldn’t discipline an employee for cannabis use outside the workplace. But they could take action against someone who used marijuana, possessed it or was impaired at work.

The House passed the bill 39-31. Six Democrats voted no – Anthony Allison of Fruitland, Harry Garcia of Grants, Doreen Wonda Johnson of Church Rock, Derrick Lente of Sandia Pueblo, Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup and Candie Sweetser of Deming.

Democratic Rep. Andrea Romero of Santa Fe said legalization would help address the inequities of the war on drugs and destigmatize cannabis use. “This gateway drug has been a gateway to eviction, to deportation, to arrests, to criminalization of addiction and more,” she said.

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