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House committee votes 7-1 to table bill legalizing pot

SANTA FE – New Mexico appears unlikely – at least for now – to join four other Western states that have legalized recreational marijuana use, after a House committee on Friday voted down a proposal to regulate and tax the drug.

Members of the House Agriculture, Water and Wildlife Committee tabled the pot proposal on a 7-1 vote, making its passage highly unlikely during the 60-day session that ends March 21.

Opponents of the measure said legalizing marijuana use could pose a public safety threat and lead to more impaired employees on New Mexico work sites.

“You are doing no one any good by making these kind of mind-altering substances more readily available,” Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh, a Republican former state representative, told lawmakers Friday.

But backers of relaxing or eliminating marijuana possession penalties vowed to keep trying.

Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, the measure’s sponsor, said he was frustrated by anecdotes about marijuana use during Friday’s hearing – two Republican lawmakers spoke of seeing violent marijuana-driven behavior in Vietnam – but said he plans to try again next year.

“I am fully confident it’s going to happen in the next 5 to 10 years,” McCamley told the Journal after Friday’s vote.

Emily Kaltenbach, director of the Drug Policy Alliance-New Mexico, also said she considers a change in the state’s marijuana laws inevitable, saying, “We knew going in this was going to be a multiyear effort.”

Nonbinding ballot questions asking voters whether they favor marijuana decriminalization passed decisively in November in Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties, and the Santa Fe City Council decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in August.

However, pot-related legislation has faced tougher sledding at the Roundhouse, where previous legalization and decriminalization bills have stalled.

The bill tabled Friday would have allowed marijuana retail licenses to be granted starting in July 2017. The state Regulation and Licensing Department warned that the legislation, House Bill 160, would have necessitated that the agency hire at least 40 additional employees to oversee and implement the new law, according to a fiscal review of the legislation.

But backers of the proposal said legalizing marijuana could free up state resources, while also claiming the drug is less addictive than tobacco or caffeine.

Although New Mexico currently has a medical marijuana law for licensed patients, recreational use of the drug is illegal, as it is under federal law. Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Alaska have all passed laws allowing for the personal possession and consumption of marijuana by adults.

Under New Mexico law, offenders can be jailed for up to 15 days for a first offense of possessing an ounce or less of marijuana and up to a year for subsequent offenses or for being caught with larger amounts of up to 8 ounces.

In a Journal Poll of statewide registered voters in September, 50 percent of those surveyed opposed marijuana legalization, while 44 percent favored it.