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Bill to legalize marijuana stalls in committee

SANTA FE – Despite a Democratic majority in both New Mexico legislative chambers, proposals to legalize and tax recreational marijuana use could be derailed due to dissent in the Democratic ranks.

A Senate bill that would make New Mexico the nation’s eighth state to legalize recreational cannabis use – the state already has a medical marijuana program – stalled in a committee Friday after a bevy of legal concerns was raised.

While it’s expected to be reworked and brought back, at least some Senate Democrats have made it clear they’re fundamentally opposed.

“Morally, I just don’t think it’s the right thing to do,” Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, said in an interview. “I’ll vote against it from the beginning.”


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Sanchez is the chairman of the Senate Corporations and Transportation Committee, where the marijuana legalization bill would head if it’s eventually approved in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

If Sanchez were to vote against the bill in his committee, along with the three Republicans serving on the panel, it would block the measure from moving forward under a committee process the Senate’s Democrat majority has staunchly defended.

The bill would still have to clear a third committee before reaching the Senate floor, where Democrats hold a 26-16 majority over Republicans.

Backers of the legalization push – there’s also a similar House bill and a proposed constitutional amendment pending at the Roundhouse – have acknowledged the tricky path forward, but say they plan to keep trying.

After Friday’s hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Emily Kaltenbach of the New Mexico Drug Policy Alliance indicated supporters are prepared for a multi-year effort.

“This was really our intent this legislative session to hear from elected officials what’s palatable and what’s not,” she told the Journal. “We want to get it as far as possible and have as much debate as possible.”

Republican lawmakers have generally opposed marijuana legalization efforts in recent years, and two-term GOP Gov. Susana Martinez has repeatedly said she is against the idea. However, the governor will be barred from seeking a third consecutive term in 2018.

Supporters of the proposals to legalize recreational marijuana have touted Colorado’s adoption of a similar law and say it could generate about $60 million a year in tax revenue for New Mexico schools, health programs and other efforts.


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In addition, Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said legalization could increase New Mexico’s profile as a tourist destination – particularly from Texans, where recreational marijuana use is illegal.

“Every eastern (New Mexico) border county will decry the devil of marijuana and take every penny they can get,” McSorley predicted. “It would be, ‘Come for horse-racing, casinos and cannabis.”

The bill debated Friday, Senate Bill 278, was largely modeled on cannabis laws in other states, including California and Oregon.

It’s sponsored by Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, who has also filed the proposed constitutional amendment, which would bypass the governor but require approval of statewide voters, likely in November 2018.

If enacted, the bill calls for a 15 percent state excise tax to be levied on legal marijuana purchases, with local governments having the option of tacking on more.

However, legal concerns raised during Friday’s hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee included potential penalties for teens using a fake ID to purchase marijuana, civil liability claims against cannabis dispensaries and how much leeway cities and counties would have to enact local tax rates.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said he wants to ensure any penalties for running afoul of a potential legalized cannabis system would be no less severe than alcohol laws.

Meanwhile, Senate Corporations Committee chairman Sanchez said he’s not convinced the benefits of legalizing pot – including more tourism – would outweigh its potential costs, such as addiction treatment.

“I’m not sure it’s the kind of tourism we want,” he said.