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House, Senate poised to vote on cannabis measures

A small group of protesters, including J.D. Vasquez of Santa Fe and Bill Ruhl of Albuquerque, pray outside the Roundhouse before the start of a special session on Tuesday. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called the special session in an attempt to win final approval for a bill legalizing recreational cannabis for adult users, which the group of protesters opposes. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A special session that could end with New Mexico joining a wave of other states in taxing and regulating cannabis got off to a brisk start Tuesday at the Roundhouse, with lawmakers advancing freshly drafted bills to legalize marijuana for adult users and wipe certain pot-related convictions off offenders’ records.

The unusual special session – called by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham just 10 days after lawmakers wrapped up a 60-day legislative session – will continue Wednesday with both the House and Senate poised to vote on the cannabis-related measures.

The Democratic governor called the special session in an attempt to get a marijuana legalization bill across the finish line after a previous bill stalled on the Senate floor in the final hours of the recently completed session.

But the “cannabis redo” also represents a political risk of sorts, because the cost of recent special sessions has averaged about $50,000 a day.

Given that backdrop, four Democratic lawmakers unveiled a revised cannabis legalization bill Tuesday that is similar to the legislation that previously fell short but with one big difference – the removal of expungement provisions that had triggered opposition, especially among Republican lawmakers. The expungement section was instead placed in a separate bill.

Meanwhile, the new cannabis proposal, House Bill 2, cleared the first of its two assigned committees Tuesday.

It would allow New Mexicans ages 21 and older to buy and possess outside the home up to 2 ounces of cannabis or 800 milligrams of edible cannabis, starting no later than April 2022.

Rep. Javier Martínez, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor, said the proposal would create a tightly regulated cannabis industry in New Mexico.

“No legislation of this magnitude will ever be perfect,” he said, “but it’s pretty darn close to it.”

The legislation passed the House Taxation and Revenue Committee 8-4 on Tuesday afternoon, a few hours after it was introduced in the House.

It was under debate before the House Judiciary Committee late Tuesday and, if passed there, would head to the full chamber for consideration.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he expected final House action on the proposal Wednesday morning, with passage sending it to the Senate.

Cannabis legalization proposals have passed the full House at least twice since 2019, only to die in the Senate, including earlier this month.

Osnaldo Perez, a contractor with American Fence, removed a portion of a security fence from around the Roundhouse before the start of a special session on Tuesday. The temporary fencing had been erected in January in response to threats of violent protests at state capitols nationwide. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Expungement

While the retooled cannabis legalization proposal advanced in the House, the stand-alone expungement bill to wipe certain cannabis-related convictions off New Mexicans’ criminal records drew scrutiny in the Senate.

The Senate Judiciary Committee spent several hours Tuesday debating the legislation, Senate Bill 2, which would order the expungement of criminal records for marijuana-related offenses that would fall under the proposed cannabis legalization law.

“These are offenses that would no longer be crimes,” Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque, said during Tuesday’s hearing.

She and other bill supporters also said drug-related convictions currently hamper many New Mexicans from landing jobs and paying their bills.

However, the bill would also authorize the release of New Mexicans jailed for cannabis-related offenses, and several senators expressed concern about the logistics of reviewing thousands of court files to determine eligibility.

In addition, Attorney General Hector Balderas, whose office would be in charge of reviewing criminal records under the expungement proposal, suggested lawmakers should appropriate money to pay for such an effort.

“Our office strongly supports criminal justice reform that corrects the inequities of excessive incarceration, but I am highly concerned that the Legislature provide the necessary funding for staffing and oversight, and that an unfunded mandate will harm deserving New Mexicans,” Balderas said in a statement.

At least some references to the AG’s Office were removed from the bill by the Senate committee late Tuesday, before it was approved and sent to the Senate floor.

Criticism

The special session has faced political crosswinds, even before getting underway.

Some GOP legislative leaders have criticized the governor for holding the special session during the week leading up to Easter and not publicly disclosing the contents of the revised bill before the session began.

In addition, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, tweeted this week that he would oppose the cannabis legalization bill because it would set up a “protectionist marketplace” by imposing plant count limits.

He also expressed concern the social justice provisions were no longer included in the measure.

In response, a Lujan Grisham spokeswoman said Tuesday that Candelaria was entitled to his own vote, but “not his own facts” about the legislation and raised the question of a conflict of interest.

“It’s hard sometimes to tell where the senator ends and the attorney for the state’s largest medical cannabis company begins,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said, referring to Candelaria’s past legal work representing Ultra Health LLC.

Sen. Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, left, talks with Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, after the start of a special session in Santa Fe, Tuesday March 30, 2021. Lawmakers have gathered again to try and pass or oppose a bill to legalize recreational marijuana for adults. Pirtle may also introduce legislation that could make marijuana legal. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

While New Mexico lawmakers debate the issue, other states are moving ahead with legalization measures. New York and Virginia are on the verge of becoming the 16th and 17th states to legalize recreational marijuana, respectively.

New Mexico already has a medical cannabis program with more than 100,000 enrolled members. And Lujan Grisham signed into law a 2019 decriminalization bill that made possession of up to a half-ounce of marijuana a civil offense punishable by a $50 fine.

Public support

Recent polls have shown broad public support across all regions of New Mexico for legalizing recreational cannabis, with backers saying such a law would generate revenue for the state, create jobs and free up law enforcement to focus on other issues.

But the legalization push has also drawn opposition, and representatives of Catholic bishops and health organizations testified Tuesday against the revised legalization bill.

Linda Siegle, a lobbyist for the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, questioned the wisdom of allowing on-site consumption, a move she said would weaken hard-fought air quality protections for workers and consumers.

“Secondhand smoke of any type is dangerous,” she said.

Opponents also said the legalization proposal would worsen New Mexico’s struggle with driving under the influence and conflict with federal law.

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