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Editorial: Weed may have won in the Roundhouse, but many pot holes need work

“I’ve always said that this bill is not perfect,” state Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, proclaimed during Wednesday’s Senate debate on groundbreaking state legislation legalizing recreational marijuana for adults 21 and older.

With myriad unanswered questions, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham acknowledged in her victory statement Wednesday night the “work will go on.”

Martínez, the lead sponsor and a longtime advocate of legalized pot, is all too right: What passed isn’t even in the ballpark of perfect. And let’s hope Lujan Grisham holds to her pledge. While marijuana legalization supporters are doing their victory lap, critics are feeling steamrolled. There were myriad cannabis legalization bills introduced during the regular session without one winning enough votes for approval. The legislative machine then moved a bill through the Roundhouse in two days before Easter weekend with limited debate and a lone amendment. (Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, offered up the good-government move that prevents House and Senate members from supporting laws that enrich themselves – they can’t hold or apply for commercial cannabis licenses until 2026. Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, and others circled the wagons and unsuccessfully opposed it.)

It was the third special session in less than a year, all three of which took place in a Roundhouse closed to the public. It was a partisan win (only Democrats voted for it), with some bipartisan opposition (nine Democrats voted against; a few others were not present for the vote).

Statewide polls show the majority of New Mexicans favor legalizing recreational cannabis for adults, a fact that weighs heavy when lawmakers are considering the pros and cons.

But the long-term consequences, far-reaching impact and one-party-rule manner in which the Cannabis Regulation Act passed the Legislature left both a slew of unanswered questions and a haze of bad will in its wake.

Lujan Grisham made it clear in her victory statement her focus is on ensuring the success of the recreational cannabis industry and that New Mexico reaps “the full economic and social benefit” of legalized marijuana. That’s understandable. The governor has a lot of political capital invested in recreational marijuana, as shown by her calling a special session on a non-emergent issue.

The “full economic benefit” remains in question, as the legislation has the state tax topping 18%. With gross-receipts taxes added, that will run 20-26%, raising the question whether illegal/black market pot will be the cheaper way to go for most consumers, and make legalization a boon to nobody but the cartels.

It is important lawmakers and the governor revisit concerns raised by Rep. Bill Rehm, R-Albuquerque and a veteran of both the Albuquerque Police and Bernalillo County Sheriff’s departments. His amendments to address those who get legal cannabis via illegal means, as well as those who sell to minors, were tabled on party-line votes.

And that brings us to the “full social benefit,” also in serious question given the unaddressed concerns about the bill’s impact on children, public safety and rural communities.

While the governor said workplace and roadway safety had been “assured to the greatest degree possible” in House Bill 2, there remain no metrics for effectively banning consumption (not just smoking) in public, dealing with drugged driving, and not only selling to minors but selling by minors.

So just how will the state, No. 1 for DWI deaths, address drugged driving? The bill is silent on this.

As for protecting the public and children, not only were concerns raised by Rehm and Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, who has championed legalizing marijuana for years, ignored – Senate Judiciary Chair Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces and an attorney, eloquently pointed out there is essentially zero penalty (just counseling and community service) for minors who use, grow or sell pot. Cervantes said that opens the door to allowing unscrupulous adults or cartel operators to grow more than the allowed six plants per adult and, if caught, blame teenagers or even partner with them. Cervantes noted that suggested changes were given little consideration as the fix was in from the opening gavel. “We’re not really genuinely here to debate the bill or to improve the bill. … (We’re here) to pass the bill,” he said.

Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs and a teacher, spoke on the Senate floor about the bill’s potential impact on Lea County. Kernan predicted Texans will drive into New Mexico, buy some weed, use it in our communities and drive home. “It’s amazing to me that intelligent people think it’s a good idea for a state that’s third-highest in poverty – knowing that people will spend money on this mind-altering drug – and I wonder why we are doing this,” she said. Kernan pleaded for giving local communities the option of prohibiting cannabis sales, but to no avail.

HB 2 passed the House by a 38-32 vote, with seven Democrats voting in opposition. Credit goes to Democratic Reps. Anthony Allison of Fruitland, Harry Garcia of Grants, Miguel Garcia of Albuquerque, D. Wonda Johnson of Rehoboth, Derrick J. Lente of Sandia Pueblo, Patricia A. Lundstrom of Gallup and Candi G. Sweetser of Deming for putting the interests of their constituents above political groupthink. It’s noteworthy most represent New Mexicans living far outside the Albuquerque metro area.

After about five and a half hours of debate in the other chamber, HB 2 passed the Senate 27-15, with two Democrats in opposition. Credit goes to Democratic Sens. Roberto “Bobby” J. Gonzales of Taos and Shannon D. Pinto of Tohatchi for having the courage to stand up to the governor who appointed them to the Senate in 2019.

Whether one supports legal recreational marijuana or not, there is much work to be done if legalized marijuana is to stay in the “win” column. The bill doesn’t require recreational sales to begin until April 2022. Martínez did promise “we’ll have to come back and make tweaks to it, and that’s OK.”

It’s more than “OK.” It’s essential if our state is going to reap any benefit and mitigate much harm from legalized marijuana.

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.