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Cannabis legalization bill nears final approval

A proposal to legalize recreational cannabis for New Mexico adults is headed to the full Senate after narrowly passing a key committee early Thursday morning. The bill’s fate will be determined in the final two days of this year’s 60-day legislative session. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel, File)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – With time running out on this year’s 60-day legislative session, the Senate is set to take a monumental vote on a bill that would make New Mexico the latest state to legalize recreational cannabis for adult users.

A full chamber vote had been scheduled for late Thursday night, but was pushed back to Friday in order to give the bill sponsors more time to prepare.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the Democratic governor was increasingly confident the marijuana legislation measure would beat the clock and make it to her desk before the session ends Saturday at noon.

“We’ll be following the Senate floor debate closely,” said Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett. “But we’re very glad it’s moving forward and very optimistic it will get done in time.”

The House-approved legalization bill, House Bill 12, has picked up steam at the Roundhouse after emerging as the preferred choice of top-ranking Democrats.

It reached the Senate floor after the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-4 early Thursday morning – after more than three hours of debate that stretched well past midnight – in favor of a retooled version of the bill.

“This will be a very interesting experiment for the state,” Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, the committee’s chairman, said at one point during the hearing.

He joined the panel’s three Republican members in voting against the proposed law, saying it was “not ready” due to perceived contradictions and legal issues.

The legislation calls for legal cannabis sales in New Mexico to begin in April 2022.

It was amended during the late-night committee hearing to include a provision that would limit cannabis plant counts for producers for three years in order to give smaller operators time to create a market niche.

The plant caps would be set by the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department, which would establish the limits based on population density and other states’ rules.

“Our biggest fear is not there’s going to be too much (cannabis), but that there would be too little and businesses would crash,” said Linda Trujillo, the superintendent of the agency that would be in charge of overseeing the state’s legal cannabis industry.

The Senate committee, which derailed a cannabis legalization proposal during last year’s session, also adopted amendments requiring independent testing and barring producers from “stacking” licenses by acquiring them under different business names.

In its current form, this year’s marijuana legalization bill would tax legal cannabis sales at about 20%, depending on the location.

Specifically, it would set an excise tax of 12%, with revenues split between state and local governments. The state’s gross receipts tax would also be levied on cannabis purchases, though medical cannabis sales would be exempted from that tax.

The vote to advance the House-approved bill came despite objections from GOP senators who criticized “social justice” provisions like expungement for cannabis possession convictions and a community grant fund to pay for education and other outreach efforts.

They argued such provisions should be kept separate from the issue of cannabis legalization.

“These two issues combined are like water and oil,” said Senate Republican floor leader Greg Baca of Belen. “They need to be addressed separately.”

At one point during the late-night hearing, Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, even tried to substitute his proposed cannabis legalization bill, Senate Bill 288, for the House version.

But that attempt was rejected on a party-line vote, with majority Democrats voting to table it.

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.

New Mexico already has a medical cannabis program with more than 100,000 enrolled members. In addition, 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 have argued it’s high time for New Mexico to take the next step and join the ranks of legal-cannabis states after years of debating the issue.

And Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, recently said there are enough votes to pass a cannabis legalization bill on the Senate floor – if a bill could get there.

Meanwhile, there’s already funding to implement cannabis legalization in New Mexico, as a $7.4 billion budget bill nearing approval at the Roundhouse would allow for up to $2 million to be transferred to the Taxation and Revenue Department from a state savings account to help cover the administrative costs of such a law.

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