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Governor’s Office floats special session on cannabis bill

Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, stands next to his desk on the Senate floor on Friday, with a bin of bills at the ready. Pirtle is among the lawmakers that have proposed cannabis legalization bills during the 60-day legislative session that ends Saturday. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE — With just hours left in this year’s 60-day legislative session, a high-profile proposal to legalize recreational cannabis for New Mexico adults was still in limbo at the Roundhouse.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham spent much of Friday meeting with lawmakers — both Democrats and Republicans — on the issue and a spokesman said the governor would consider calling a special session if the legalization bill is not approved by the Legislature before Saturday’s noon adjournment.

Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said such a special session could be called “sooner rather than later,” adding there was a largely-agreed upon framework in place between the Governor’s Office and lawmakers.

“Nobody wants to wait another year — it’s too close to being done,” Stelnicki told the Journal.

A House-approved bill that would make New Mexico the latest state to legalize marijuana has been on the Senate floor agenda since Thursday after being overhauled by two Senate committees.

But the legalization measure, House Bill 12, had not been brought up for a full Senate vote as of late Friday, with some senators saying the bill was still being revised.

And one of the senators that met with the governor, Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, indicated Friday he had a large stack of proposed amendments.

Meanwhile, the Democratic sponsors of the cannabis legislation bill — Reps. Javier Martinez of Albuquerque and Andrea Romero of Santa Fe — issued a statement late Friday saying it was up to the Senate to vote on it.

“(The bill) puts forward New Mexico’s best opportunity to establish a multi-million-dollar industry with a framework that prioritizes social justice and equal opportunity for our communities,” said the measure’s sponsors, saying New Mexico was ready to legalize marijuana.

In its current form, the bill calls for legal cannabis sales in New Mexico to begin in April 2022.

It was amended during a Senate committee hearing this week 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.

As for taxes, the marijuana legalization bill in play at the Capitol 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 tax rate would generate an estimated $20 million in annual state revenue, and about half that much money for cities and counties around New Mexico, according to analysis of the legislation.

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.

While legalization supporters had expressed optimism this could be the year for a legalization bill to also win final approval, crafting an agreement with enough support to pass the Senate has proven to be a challenging task during this year’s session.

Among other issues, there has been lengthy debate over “social justice” provisions in the cannabis bill, such as expungement for marijuana possession convictions and a community grant fund to pay for education and other outreach efforts.

Several GOP lawmakers have argued those provisions should be stripped out and proposed in separate legislation.

But Democratic bill sponsors have so far countered that it’s important they be left in the bill in order to address uneven treatment in the state’s criminal justice system for marijuana-related arrests.

Meanwhile, a special session on cannabis legalization could be politically risky, as the cost of recent New Mexico special sessions have averaged $50,000 per day.

Under the state’s Constitution, only the governor can call a special session, which can last for no more than 30 days.

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