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Legislator wants NM to legalize marijuana

Senator Gerald Ortiz y Pino

Senator Gerald Ortiz y Pino.

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

A day after Colorado opened its doors to the legalized sale of recreational marijuana, a state senator said New Mexico should consider following suit.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat, said he will introduce a constitutional amendment proposal to legalize recreational marijuana when the Legislature convenes this month.

The constitutional amendment would go on the general election ballot this November if approved by both the House and Senate. Constitutional amendment proposals go straight from the Legislature to voters, and Gov. Susana Martinez would not be able to act on the measure if it were approved by lawmakers.

Martinez, a Republican and a former district attorney, opposes drug legalization.

There also were indications Thursday that Ortiz y Pino’s proposals could get cold shoulders from Republicans in the Legislature.

Ortiz y Pino said his proposal will be modeled after the Colorado voter referendum that in 2012 legalized recreational marijuana use in that state. Colorado on Wednesday allowed marijuana dispensaries to begin selling the drug to the public, with a 25 percent tax earmarked to help fund education programs.

“I think the argument we’ll make is that this is basically an opportunity for the public to decide if they want to do it,” Ortiz y Pino said. “…If they don’t (vote for it) we go back to the drawing board.”

If the proposal were adopted by the Legislature and ratified by voters, lawmakers could take up consideration of specifics in 2015 with legislation to determine how marijuana might be sold, taxed and regulated in New Mexico, Ortiz y Pino said.

Legalization would allow the state to redirect resources currently used to enforce laws criminalizing marijuana while also creating a new source of tax revenue for the state, Ortiz y Pino said.

“The whole point would be that it would be a step toward a more rational approach to a use of the substance, much as we do with alcohol now,” Ortiz y Pino said.

Legislative Republicans say the proposal will face a tough road, especially during this year’s 30-day legislative session. The so-called short sessions of the Legislature have more limited agendas than 60-day sessions in odd-numbered years and are intended to focus on passage of a state budget. Constitutional amendment proposals, however, can be introduced at any time.

A proposal last year to reduce criminal penalties for personal marijuana use passed the House on a 37-33 vote but never was taken up by the Senate before the Legislature adjourned.

House Minority Whip Nate Gentry, R-Albuquerque, who voted in favor of the reduced penalties bill, said marijuana legalization through the state Constitution would have less of a chance of passing.

“I don’t think it moves,” Gentry said. “… It’s something that needs to be considered in a very thoughtful way, not by willy-nilly amending the Constitution.”

Gentry said he viewed the proposal to legalize marijuana through a constitutional amendment as an effort to bypass a veto by the governor, who has voiced opposition to loosening state drug laws.

Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said Martinez believes it would be more appropriate to consider the proposal through legislation rather than a constitutional amendment “to deal with the many complications and unforeseen consequences.”

But Martinez also seems to oppose Ortiz y Pino’s idea in principle.

“As a prosecutor and district attorney, the governor has seen firsthand how illegal drug use destroys lives, especially among our youth, and she opposes drug legalization or decriminalization efforts,” Knell said in a statement.

Knell called the proposal an effort to increase liberal voter turnout in the November election, when Martinez will be seeking re-election.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, the House majority whip, said he expects the House could sign off on proposed legalization because public opinion in favor of legalization has grown over the past year.

“There’s going to be those members that just can’t overcome prior prejudices, they can’t overcome their own hatred of drug use or drug users, but we all know that prohibition doesn’t work,” Maestas said. “That revenue side of things hopefully will be able to tip the scales because there’s going to be no lobby against taxing it.”

Sen. Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, the Senate minority leader, said New Mexico would be better served by watching how other states like Colorado and Washington handle marijuana legalization first.

“Let’s see what happens in other states. Let’s let somebody else be the experimental place, and then we might take a look at it,” Ingle said.

Even among Democrats, who hold majorities in both the House and Senate, the idea of legalizing recreational marijuana is not agreed upon.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, who voted in favor of legal medicinal marijuana, said allowing marijuana to be available for recreational use is a step too far. That legalization, Smith said, could force some New Mexico employers to recruit new employees out of state because of perceived increases in drug use. Legalization also could create difficultly at U.S. border crossings with Mexico, where federal drug laws prohibiting marijuana are enforced.

“It really doesn’t take care of much-needed jobs in the state,” Smith said. “That would be my biggest objection.”

Smith said support for the measure based on potential increases in tax revenue is “a lame excuse” for recreational marijuana legalization.

Ortiz y Pino said Colorado and Washington mapped out a responsible approach to legalization that could guide New Mexico’s consideration of the issue. The proposal for legalization would be the first of its kind in the state Legislature, Ortiz y Pino said.

“We’ve been talking about it, but until Colorado acted last year, it had seemed like kind of a pipe dream,” he said. “The early polling on this, both nationally and in the state, show it would be a very popular measure.”