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Lawmaker presses for marijuana debate in NM

potlegsSANTA FE, N.M. — The conversation about whether New Mexico should join other Western states in legalizing marijuana is cranking up as state lawmakers prepare for the 2015 legislative session.

Rep. Bill McCamley, a Democrat from southern New Mexico, took his case for legalization to fellow lawmakers Tuesday during a meeting of the interim health and human services committee.

McCamley dismissed the stoner humor of 1970s comics Cheech and Chong and said this should be a serious debate.

“Let’s talk about the facts,” he told the committee. “Let’s talk about what’s actually happening in terms of public policy, and let’s not get caught up in stereotypes about what this is or isn’t.”

McCamley has yet to craft the legislation, but he’s looking at Oregon as a model. Voters in that state, Alaska and the District of Columbia approved ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana earlier this month, joining Colorado and Washington.

In New Mexico, the push for legalization follows the success of ballot questions in two of the state’s most populous counties that gauged voter support for decriminalizing marijuana.

“If you look at prohibition, it’s basically a failure both in terms of alcohol in the 1920s and the drug war now,” McCamley said during an interview. “We’re spending all of this money enforcing marijuana laws and prosecuting people for smoking marijuana. That can be used in other law-enforcement efforts like prosecuting rapists and murderers — and that’s important.”

Then there’s the potential for tax revenue.

There have been no studies on the economic effects legalization would have on New Mexico, a poor state and one that has long struggled when it comes to economic development. In neighboring Colorado, the state has brought in more than $52 million in taxes, licenses and fees for recreational and medical marijuana since the beginning of the year.

McCamley also estimates the state could save over $33 million in costs associated with police, courts and corrections if marijuana is legalized.

“If we legalize and regulate marijuana, we get the benefits of the tax money. And the cartels that are creating a lot of violence both in the United States and internationally, we cut them off at the knees at the same time,” he said.

A bill that would have let voters decide the issue failed during the last legislative session amid concerns about running afoul of federal law and possibly losing grant money from the U.S. Justice Department and other agencies for efforts to reduce drug trafficking and drug production.

The New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association has yet to develop a position on the matter.

“Right now, there are several sheriffs who are very opposed to it. We also have sheriffs who say let’s wait and see and others who want it researched,” said Jack LeVick, the group’s executive director. “Before we jump on board as another state doing it, everybody needs to spend the time and really research the patterns and the problems that are existing.”

Gov. Susana Martinez has been an outspoken critic of decriminalizing marijuana, and control of the state House of Representatives swinging to Republicans will likely make for a challenge in getting legislation passed.

“We don’t want to get people’s expectations up, but it’s very important to have this conversation,” McCamley said.