After years of debate, you would think proponents of legalizing recreational cannabis would have their ducks in a row. After all, concerns about drugged drivers, maintaining drug-free workplaces, dispensaries clustered in poor parts of town, access by minors and long-term health effects have been raised in Santa Fe even before the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act legalized medical marijuana in 2007.
Yet with such a complex issue, it’s not surprising lawmakers are still hashing out myriad concerns. And it’s truly a travesty that they are taking action – without any face-to-face public input – on a bill with such far-reaching consequences as legalizing a drug that remains illegal under federal law. Yet that’s where we are.
The language of an eleventh-hour compromise bill has come down to small groups of legislators working behind closed doors – the latest example of a legislative session untethered from a truly democratic process.
But as lawmakers forge ahead, there remain multiple legitimate public safety issues, such as:
• A local option. Some communities clearly don’t want recreational pot. And while we would normally agree with those who oppose a legal checkerboard, forcing a conservative community to embrace weed stores is a far cry from expecting uniformity across the state in laws against driving and texting on a cellphone. House Republicans and Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, have argued in favor of a Colorado opt-in/out, but senators on Tuesday stripped provisions in a legalization bill sponsored by Pirtle, SB 288, that called for a one-mile buffer between recreational cannabis dispensaries and allowing cities and counties to decide whether to allow them.
• A path for small entrepreneurs as well as personal grows. Any bill should allow state residents to enter the marketplace, rather than giving mega-growers a monopoly. And believing users will not grow their own and law enforcement will be able to find every apartment with two plants and a black light is naive at best.
• Public safety metrics. A prohibition on smoking marijuana in public, best practices for fairly identifying drugged driving, protecting employers who need to maintain a drug-free workplace, ensuring that clusters of dispensaries don’t end up stigmatizing a neighborhood, providing for tracking of legalization’s effects – these all need to be addressed.
Instead, the House-approved bill, HB 12, is larded up with social justice provisions such as the expungement of criminal convictions. Pirtle’s bill, on the other hand, would create a fund for research to determine driver impairment.
Any marijuana bill that makes it through to the governor needs to be a clean one addressing the immediate consequences of legalizing recreational pot; trying to rectify the fallout of the failed war on drugs belongs in separate legislation.
Senate changes to the House-approved bill likely will bring about a high-stakes legislative conference committee to reach a compromise. That leaves the language of a legalization bill in the hands of even fewer, hardly serving the 2 million people who call New Mexico home.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has made legalizing recreational marijuana one of her top priorities, has not weighed in other than supporting safeguards for children and medical cannabis users. Those are laudable concerns, but New Mexico needs her to use her influence to protect communities that don’t want legal pot forced into their economies, allow average New Mexicans to be storefront owners rather than relegate them to being minimum-wage bud-tenders, prevent DUI from becoming the new DWI plaguing our roads, ensure that employers can maintain drug-free workplaces where necessary and keep neighborhoods from having weed stores on every corner and pot smoking in front of homes and businesses.
While the governor has long touted recreational pot as an economic windfall, she is the only person in the legislative process elected statewide, thus the watchdog for the entire state. Like the proverbial buck, any bill stops at her desk. It is essential she ensure that our diverse communities over 33 counties have a voice and protections in any bill.
Because as it is, an issue of this magnitude is being rammed through a closed Roundhouse largely along party lines while serious public concerns are limited to a few minutes on Zoom.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.