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Lawmakers say two pot bills have better shot this year

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino

The sponsors of two measures to legalize marijuana say the issue will get “a full and deep discussion” from New Mexico lawmakers this year because of growing public acceptance and Democratic control of the Legislature.

Both proposals would legalize marijuana for recreational use by anyone 21 or older, although they take different approaches.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, plans to sponsor a resolution calling for an amendment to New Mexico’s Constitution that would legalize, tax and regulate marijuana for recreational use by adults.

If approved by lawmakers, the proposed amendment would require approval of voters in the November 2018 general election at the earliest. It would not be subject to a veto by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez.

A second bill, sponsored by Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, would legalize marijuana this year and set a 15 percent tax on sales.

Rep. Bill McCamley

Rep. Bill McCamley

He estimates the tax would raise up to $70 million in the first year, with proceeds earmarked for K-12 education, economic development, substance abuse treatment and other uses.

Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, will co-sponsor the measure, called the Cannabis Revenue and Freedom Act. It would take effect July 1 if approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Martinez.

This year marks the third consecutive year McCamley has introduced legislation that would legalize cannabis. The previous bills all died in committee in the Republican-controlled House.

“This year, we feel we will have a full and deep discussion on this,” McCamley said this week at a press conference where he announced the bill.

Gov. Martinez, a former prosecutor, reaffirmed her longtime opposition to marijuana legalization this week.

Gov. Martinez “does not support legalizing drugs,” her spokesman, Mike Lonergan, said in a written statement.

McCamley acknowledged this week that obtaining a two-thirds majority required to override the governor’s veto “would be tough.”

Under current state law, first-time offenders in possession of less than an ounce of marijuana are charged with a petty misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $100 and up to 15 days in jail.

Santa Fe city councilors in 2014 approved an ordinance that makes possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil infraction punishable by a fine of no more than $25.

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry in 2015 vetoed a City Council-approved measure that would have made possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil offense, not a criminal violation. Albuquerque police say they rarely arrest people for possession of less than an ounce, if that is the only charge.

Ortiz y Pino also said his proposed constitutional amendment has a better chance of passage this year than in past years. The measure has failed three times since 2014. It died on the Senate floor in 2016.

If it is approved by lawmakers, the earliest it could be on a ballot is November 2018. If voters approved the proposed amendment, lawmakers then would need to consider enabling legislation to tax and regulate cannabis production and sales.

Ortiz y Pino and McCamley both said public opinion favors legalization, in New Mexico and nationally.

Voters in California, Massachusetts, Nevada and Maine approved ballot measures in November to legalize recreational use of marijuana. Arizona voters rejected legalization in November. The U.S. now has eight states, plus the District of Columbia, where recreational marijuana is legal.

Both lawmakers also pointed to a Journal Poll published in October that found that 61 percent of likely New Mexico voters said they would support a proposal to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana for adults 21 and older, while 34 percent said they would oppose it. The remainder said they had mixed feelings or did not know.

“People want this,” McCamley said. Legalization “is happening in other states. This is going to happen. The question is, do we want it to happen 10 years from now? Or do we want to start getting the benefits now?”

McCamley cited a 2016 report by economist Kelly O’Donnell, who estimated that the legal market for social-use marijuana would total $412.5 million in New Mexico after the first year and create 6,600 jobs in the cannabis industry.

Advocates also say legalization would remove hundreds of millions of dollars from the criminal market for pot.

An opponent of marijuana legalization acknowledged that legalization has a better shot in the Legislature this year than in the past.

Rep. Bill Rehm, an Albuquerque Republican and retired Bernalillo County sheriff’s captain, said that legalizing cannabis would worsen the state’s problem with driving under the influence. He also rejects that legalization would eliminate the criminal market for pot.

“Look at New Mexico and our DWI problem,” Rehm said. “So we want to go ahead and add another legal intoxicant to this formula?”