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Stage set for showdown on cannabis legalization bills

Two competing cannabis legalization bills are still in the mix, with 11 days remaining in the session. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Two competing bills to legalize recreational cannabis in New Mexico moved forward Tuesday at the Roundhouse, setting up a high-stakes showdown that will play out during the final days of this year’s 60-day legislative session.

Both bills approved by a Senate committee were revised in recent days as backers worked to address trouble spots and shore up support, while several other cannabis legalization measures were withdrawn in an attempt to avoid a marijuana backlog.

“The clock is ticking on the session, but I believe we still have time to come together on a compromise that works for all of us – or at least most of us,” one of the bill sponsors, Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, said during Tuesday’s meeting of the Senate Taxation, Business and Transportation Committee.

The two bills passed the committee after more than two hours of debate, although several senators warned they could vote against one or both measures on the Senate floor.

And the bills still face a tricky path to reach the full Senate as they next go to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where a similar adult-use legalization bill was tabled last year.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in a recent television interview that cannabis legalization would not address New Mexico’s crime and poverty issues.

“I continue to have a great deal of reservations as to whether New Mexico is ready to have marijuana available on every street corner,” Cervantes said in the interview with KRWG-TV.

Despite the wariness of some senators, supporters of the legalization push say there are enough votes to pass a bill on the Senate floor – if one of the two bills can get there.

Two competing bills to legalize cannabis face a tricky path to reach the full Senate. They next go to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where a similar bill was tabled last year. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

Debate over limits

One of the bills, House Bill 12, was amended Tuesday with input from state Regulation and Licensing Superintendent Linda Trujillo, a Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appointee whose agency would be in charge of overseeing the state’s legal cannabis industry.

That bill, which passed the House last month, would set a state excise tax of 8%, while cities and counties could impose additional 4% local option taxes on top of that.

Under a change to the bill, the Regulation and Licensing Department would be able to restrict recreational cannabis licenses and impose a plant count limit, but only after conducting a market study.

Backers of the provision cited other states such as Oregon, which has reportedly grappled with how to deal with more than 1 million pounds of unsold pot.

“It’s nice to say let the market decide, but that’s what got Oregon into a lot of problems,” said Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque.

But critics say limits on licenses and cannabis supply could lead to market shortages, while benefiting certain smaller producers.

“The goal is to get cannabis as cheap as possible (in order) to drive out the black market,” said Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell.

Some Republican senators have also criticized “social justice” provisions 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, arguing that they should be kept separate from the issue of cannabis legalization.

“I know we’re going to make some money, but we’re also going to spend some money to clean up the mess we’re creating,” said Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs.

She also said lawmakers would be “fooling ourselves” in believing they could shut down the illicit market for marijuana.

State commission

The other bill moving forward, Senate Bill 288, is sponsored by Pirtle and would create a state commission to set up and regulate the cannabis industry.

In its initial form, the bill called for a one-mile buffer between licensed cannabis dispensaries and would have allowed cities and counties to decide whether to allow dispensaries within their boundaries.

Both those provisions were removed from the bill Tuesday, though Pirtle said local governments could still decide where and how dispensaries could operate.

It would impose a lower state excise tax of 2%, while cities and counties could each tack on an additional 2% in local option taxes.

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 by a $50 fine.

But legalization supporters say now is the time for New Mexico to take the next step and join the ranks of legal-cannabis states after years of debating the issue.

“Here in front of us is a brand-new industry we get to shape from scratch,” Martínez said. “I think legalization sooner rather than later is the way to go.”

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