Recreational pot bill hits roadblock in House committee

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SANTA FE – The latest attempt to add New Mexico to the ranks of states that have legalized recreational marijuana use – and taxed its sales – was derailed Monday in a House panel, when four Democrats joined with the committee’s five Republicans to table the measure.

The 9-1 vote in the House Business and Industry Committee after more than two hours of debate all but ensures the bill will not land on Gov. Susana Martinez’s desk before the 60-day legislative session ends March 18.

With uncertainty swirling about whether President Donald Trump’s administration will shift federal policy and crack down on states that have legalized recreational pot, some lawmakers expressed concern about legalizing recreational marijuana in New Mexico. Eight states and the District of Columbia have enacted such laws.

They also expressed concern about marijuana’s effect on young people – although the bill would have limited legal sales to those age 21 and older – and skepticism about claims that legalization would curb the influence of drug cartels.

“Just because we change the law, it doesn’t take out the criminal element,” said Rep. Patricio Ruiloba, D-Albuquerque.

However, Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, one of the bill’s sponsors, cited recent polls that showed strong support for legalizing recreational marijuana in New Mexico, and he pushed back against suggestions that legalization has led to increased usage and crime rates in neighboring Colorado.

“This is going to happen,” McCamley said of legalizing marijuana in New Mexico. “I believe if we’re going to get the benefits from it we should do it now.”

Other backers, including representatives from a labor union and the American Civil Liberties Union, said the legislation could free up law enforcement agencies to focus on more serious crimes and bring in more revenue for the cash-strapped state.

Emily Kaltenbach of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that’s advocated for the legalization of recreational cannabis, said there were more than 2,100 marijuana possession cases pending in New Mexico courts in 2016 that were not tied to drunken driving, domestic violence or other alleged offenses.

If approved, House Bill 89 would have enacted a 15 percent state tax rate on cannabis sales from licensed dispensaries and deposit revenue in funds earmarked for schools, judicial branch agencies and treatment programs. Cities and counties would have been able to levy an additional tax on top of that.

“Even a 20 percent total tax is still lower than most of the other states that are doing this,” McCamley said.

Although Democrats hold a majority in both legislative chambers, dissent in the Democratic ranks over the legalization push has played a key role in bottling up recent efforts.

Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Española, the House Business and Industry Committee’s chairwoman, said that during a recent trip to Denver she was struck by high rates of homelessness and questioned whether it was linked to marijuana legalization.

“There have been social ills that have come with it,” she said.

Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, provided the one “no” vote against the motion to table the bill, but he said he wasn’t sure whether he would have supported it had it advanced.

New Mexico has a medical marijuana program in which enrollment has skyrocketed in recent years, and Trujillo was among several lawmakers who expressed concern the measure could give currently licensed medical marijuana providers a head start in getting licenses for recreational pot.

In addition to the House bill tabled Monday, there is a similar Senate bill and a proposed constitutional amendment pending in the Legislature.

Martinez, a former prosecutor, has opposed efforts to legalize recreational marijuana in New Mexico. The Republican governor has less than two years left on the four-year term she was elected to in 2014 and is barred from seeking a third consecutive term in 2018.

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Rep. Carl Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, center, asks questions about a bill to make recreational marijuana legal during a hearing in the House Business and Industry Committee in Santa Fe on Monday. The bill failed to pass the committee 9 to 1. Also on the committee is Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, left. Trujillo cast the only vote against tabling the bill. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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Reps. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Los Lunas, and Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, question Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, center, about his bill to legalize recreational marijuana. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, argues in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana during a hearing on a bill in the House Business and Industry Committee on Monday. McCamley is one of the sponsors of the measure, which would have levied a 15 percent state tax on cannabis sales from licensed dispensaries. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

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