Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico will fire up a new recreational cannabis industry that holds the promise of both economic bounty and public safety challenges, after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Monday signed a bill passed during a special legislative session last month.
The governor, who also signed a companion bill that could wipe some cannabis-related possession convictions off thousands of New Mexicans’ records, described the legalization law as a “game-changer.”
During a news conference outside the Roundhouse, she said an initial state Department of Public Safety review has identified roughly 150,000 people who will have their records reviewed for possible expungement.
“We owe it to our sons and daughters to make right the policy failures of decades past,” Lujan Grisham said, saying the war on drugs has been a failure.
But the Democratic governor said she will not necessarily be among those partaking once use and possession of small amounts of marijuana is legalized June 29.
“I have no reason not to when it’s ready to go, but I have no plans to do so,” Lujan Grisham said in response to a question.
Under the new law, retail sales of cannabis products will begin no later than April 2022.
A new division in the state Regulation and Licensing Department will handle cannabis licensing, and the agency is already preparing for license applications to begin being filed in September.
Meanwhile, possession of up to 2 ounces of cannabis – or equivalent amounts of cannabis extract – will be legalized in late June under the just-approved law, as will personal production of no more than six mature marijuana plants per adult.
This year’s measure, House Bill 2, was passed after previous legalization proposals did not win approval in recent years from the Democratic-controlled Legislature.
Backers had expressed optimism this year would be the year for weed breakthrough in New Mexico, but a House-approved cannabis legalization bill stalled on the Senate floor in the final hours of a 60-day legislative session that ended March 20.
That prompted Lujan Grisham to call lawmakers back to the Roundhouse for a special session that lasted two days and ended with final approval for both the legalization and expungement measures.
“I think today New Mexicans can finally exhale,” said Emily Kaltenbach of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that has pushed for years for cannabis legalization.
Although no Republican lawmakers attended Monday’s ceremony, the governor and several Democratic legislators noted that parts of a competing legalization bill sponsored by Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, were incorporated into the final version of the measure signed into law.
Pirtle later said that some parts of his bill – including landlord protections – had indeed been added into the Democratic-backed legislation.
But he expressed concern about excessive red tape for aspiring small cannabis producers and a provision that could allow consumers to buy larger amounts of cannabis if it’s kept out of public view, among other issues.
“I imagine we’ll have a chance to fix it … or at least some of the issues I think need to be fixed,” Pirtle told the Journal.
Meanwhile, state GOP Chairman Steve Pearce said cannabis legalization will lead to increased crime and a spike in marijuana consumption among minors.
“The governor has a pipe dream of saving the state’s finances by hoping to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars from marijuana revenues, but it’s unclear just how much money will end up in state coffers,” Pearce said in a Monday statement.
Since taking office in 2019, Lujan Grisham has pitched cannabis legalization as a way to diversify New Mexico’s economy, create jobs and bolster the state as a tourist destination, especially with neighboring Texas unlikely to legalize marijuana in the near future.
The newly approved law is expected to generate $20 million in revenue for the state in the 2023 fiscal year, along with an estimated $10 million for local governments around New Mexico, according to a fiscal analysis.
Some law enforcement officials around New Mexico have voiced worries about public safety issues, including a possible increase in driving under the influence of cannabis once the new law takes effect.
In an attempt to address those concerns, lawmakers appropriated $750,000 in a separate special session bill to fund law enforcement preparation efforts.
Specifically, those funds could be spent to train law enforcement officers as drug recognition experts and to either develop roadside impairment tests for cannabis or to purchase them, once they’re available.
“We take that seriously and we know folks will travel here (to consume cannabis),” Lujan Grisham said Monday.
She also said the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department will craft rules to address other public safety issues before the new law is fully enacted.
Concerns over public safety issues have not stopped several other states from also approving cannabis legalization laws in recent weeks, including Virginia and New York.
Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, one of the bill’s lead sponsors, expressed optimism the trend could put pressure on the federal government to declassify marijuana as an illegal narcotic.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, described the new law as imperfect but said it could be built on in coming years.
“What’s important to me is that we have in place a structure,” Wirth said.