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Governor signals special session after cannabis bill falls short

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The push to legalize recreational cannabis for New Mexico adults will have to wait after stalling in the final hours of this year’s 60-day legislative session – but maybe not for long.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she plans to call lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session on marijuana legalization in about two weeks, adding a framework for a deal was already largely in place despite its failure to win final approval.

“It’s not really goodbye – it’s take a rest and I’ll see you soon,” Lujan Grisham said during a news conference at the Capitol shortly after Saturday’s adjournment.

The Democratic governor, who has pushed for cannabis legalization since taking office in 2019, said approval of such a law would create jobs and bolster business opportunities in New Mexico.

“It makes no sense to make New Mexicans wait when we’ve got it ready to go,” Lujan Grisham said.

When asked, she did not rule out adding additional items to the agenda of the special session that could start March 31, but she said she doesn’t intend to clutter it up with multiple policy initiatives.

While five different cannabis legalization bills were filed during this year’s 60-day session, only one of the bills was still in play during the final hours.

Sweeping changes were made to that measure, House Bill 12, in two Senate committees, and more amendments were still being crafted in the run-up to adjournment.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said the latest draft of the cannabis legalization bill was delivered to him at about 7:30 a.m. Saturday – just a few hours before adjournment.

But he said he ultimately decided not to bring the bill up for a vote because it would have prompted a lengthy debate and likely led to the demise of dozens of other bills.

“We are close,” Wirth said Saturday. “But there was no way it was ready.”

Specifically, he said Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, who had introduced one of the competing marijuana legalization measures, had a cartful of proposed amendments to the House-approved bill and a ready supply of energy drinks.

But some Republican lawmakers said they are not keen on the idea of coming back for a special session.

House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said returning to Santa Fe for marijuana legislation will be costly for taxpayers, especially given the increased security now present at the Capitol.

“We’re expecting to come back for a special session because the Democrat leadership in the House and the Senate and the Governor’s Office couldn’t get everything they wanted,” he said.

Split the bill?

In its final form, the bill that ultimately languished on the Senate floor called for legal cannabis sales in New Mexico to begin in April 2022.

As for taxes, marijuana sales would have been taxed at about 20%, depending on the location.

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

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, said it would have passed if the legislative session would have lasted a few more days.

“The bill is well-vetted and ready to go,” Martínez said shortly after the session ended Saturday.

However, crafting a legalization bill with enough support to pass both the House and Senate proved to be a difficult task despite strong Democratic majorities in both chambers.

Among other issues, there were lengthy debates 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.

Voicing the views of several GOP lamwakers, Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, said lawmakers should split the proposal into at least two parts – one on the economic and regulatory questions, another on criminal justice matters, such as expunging past cannabis convictions.

That could be a path lawmakers pursue in the special session, as several lawmakers confirmed that one of the options under consideration before Saturday’s adjournment was moving forward with two separate bills.

Broad support

While New Mexico lawmakers debate the issue, other states are moving ahead with legalization measures. 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 backers have argued for years that New Mexico should also legalize cannabis as a way to generate revenue for the state, create jobs and free up law enforcement to focus on other issues.

On the other side of the issue, critics of such proposals, including New Mexico’s Roman Catholic bishops and some business groups, have voiced concerns about the impact of cannabis legalization on children and drug-free workplace policies, among other issues.

“For the third year in a row, New Mexico lawmakers have rejected Big Pot’s attempt to expand into the state, and for good reason,” said Kevin Sabet, the president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national group opposed to cannabis legalization. “As each day passes, more research is published showing the damaging effects of the proliferation of today’s high-potency marijuana.”

However, recent polls have shown broad support for cannabis legalization in New Mexico across all regions of the state.

Arranging security

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

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

After Saturday’s adjournment, Baca called on Lujan Grisham and Democratic legislative leaders to reopen the Capitol to the public and take down the security fence before the special session.

“We have the public fenced off from their own building,” Baca said Saturday afternoon. “We had no participation from them.”

During her news conference, Lujan Grisham said such decisions are made by top-ranking lawmakers and the Legislature’s administrative arm, not by her. But she suggested the security presence that was ramped up in January because of threats of political violence could be dialed down.

“I would expect there should be no fencing for the special session,” she said.

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