Down to the wire for cannabis legalization

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The clock is ticking on this year’s push to legalize cannabis for adult users in New Mexico, but backers’ hopes are far from extinguished.

A Senate committee did not take action Saturday on any of the four marijuana legalization bills assigned to it, as had been previously scheduled, instead opting to hold off on the bills so a group of legislators working on a compromise proposal could have more time.

“I remain confident that a solution can be found,” Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said in a Saturday interview. “This is a very big issue with a lot of moving pieces.”

Wirth voiced support for using a legalization bill passed Feb. 26 by the House, which would authorize commercial sales to begin in January 2022, as the basis for a compromise.

In large part, that’s because the legislation, House Bill 12, could be amended in the Senate and then advanced, which would avoid the need for House committees to vote on it again.

“If that happens, I’m confident we have the votes on the Senate floor to get it passed,” Wirth said.

But Senate changes to the House-approved bill could also set the stage for a high-stakes legislative conference committee in the final days of the session, in which appointed lawmakers from each legislative chamber would try to hammer out a compromise.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, sponsor of one of the cannabis legalization bills, said there is still “plenty of time” left in this year’s session, which ends March 20.

“I have full confidence that the Senate will get a bill back to the House; with some amendments but in more than enough time to get this bill to the governor’s desk,” Candelaria told the Journal. “Thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic activity are on the line.”

But there are several issues to be resolved, including plant count and license limits for cannabis producers.

And several Republicans have suggested they would not support the House-approved bill in its current form and prefer other approaches to cannabis legalization.

Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, sponsor of a cannabis legalization bill that would allow New Mexico cities and counties to decide whether dispensaries could be located within their boundaries, said he objects to the proposed tax rate – it could be higher than 20% – and regulatory framework of the House measure.

He also said he believes “social justice” provisions included in the House-approved bill, such as expungement for cannabis possession convictions and a community grant fund to pay for education and other outreach efforts, should be kept separate from the issue of cannabis legalization.

Pirtle said in a recent interview that he has not been part of the working group discussions, adding, “I would help them if I was included in (the talks).”

While New Mexico lawmakers debate the issue, other states are moving ahead with legalization measures, as Virginia is on the verge of becoming the 16th state to legalize recreational marijuana.

In New Mexico, the state already has a medical cannabis program with more than 100,000 enrolled members. In addition, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed into law a 2019 bill that made possession of up to a half-ounce of marijuana a civil offense punishable with a $50 fine.

While the governor also supports cannabis legalization, as long as legislation includes safeguards for children and medical cannabis users, she has not weighed in on which of the cannabis bills she prefers – at least not publicly.

But there are plenty of strong opinions to go around.

Ben Lewinger, executive director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, said the legalization bill should be simple and streamlined.

But he said most licensed medical cannabis producers would support the House-approved bill if amendments are added dealing with cannabis production limits and industry representation in the rule-making process.

“It’s not anti-free market; it’s just that with a new recreational program the state needs to be able to do that to protect small businesses,” Lewinger said, citing the experiences of Oregon and other states that have enacted production limits after legalizing cannabis.

Proposals to legalize recreational marijuana have made incremental progress at the Roundhouse in recent years but have ultimately stalled before reaching the governor’s desk.

While many supporters are still optimistic this could be the year for a green breakthrough, due in part to election-related changes in the Senate, the delays on moving a compromise bill forward could signal the complexities of the issue.

“I think a lot of obstacles … still very much exist,” Lewinger said.

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