Democrats, after all, had reclaimed a narrow majority in the state House and expanded their edge in the Senate ahead of this year’s 60-day session.
But the idea failed to reach the floor in either chamber, with skepticism from conservative Democrats helping to kill the legislation.
Now supporters are considering their options – reshaping their proposals to address objections, trying to change lawmakers’ minds and attempting to make the issue a pillar of next year’s Democratic primary for governor.
“This is going to happen,” said Rep. Bill McCamley, a Mesilla Park Democrat who carried a legalization bill on the House side. “You have overwhelming public support for the policy.”
Oddly enough, the concept of legalizing, taxing and regulating marijuana for adults 21 and older seems less controversial outside the Roundhouse than in. In a Journal poll last year, 61 percent of likely voters said they support the idea, with 34 percent opposed.
But there’s less pressure for lawmakers to seriously consider the idea, supporters say, when they know Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, will oppose it. Martinez has veto power over bills passed by the Legislature.
A proposed constitutional amendment, however, would bypass her and go directly to voters, but that approach hasn’t won legislative support, either.
Opponents say marijuana legalization would conflict with federal law and interfere with law enforcement efforts.
They’ve also raised concerns about encouraging drug use or damaging New Mexico’s fight against driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Supporters, in turn, say strictly regulating marijuana sales would make it harder for teens to get the drug, attract adult tourists and generate $60 million or more in annual revenue.
The 2018 race for governor could be the next forum for debate.
Martinez is wrapping up her second term and cannot run for re-election.
A clear majority of Republicans polled by the Journal last year opposed legalization. But about 70 percent of Democrats supported it, which could elevate the issue during campaign season.
U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat from Albuquerque, is the only major candidate to enter the race so far. She hasn’t taken a clear position yet on marijuana legalization but said she would work with lawmakers interested in the issue.
“I understand and recognize both the economic benefit and the impact on the criminal justice system,” she said in a written statement. “New Mexico has the benefit of completely evaluating the impact that legalization has had on Colorado and Washington, including the impacts to neighboring states. That evaluation must include the potential negative effects on youth, and on urban, rural and tribal communities, particularly those with high rates of substance abuse and DWI, so that an informative and honest debate can occur with N.M. legislators.”
Legalization is favored by at least three other potential Democratic candidates: media executive Jeff Apodaca, Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales and businessman Alan Webber.
Apodaca, who describes himself as a probable candidate, said he was prescribed medical marijuana as a young adult when he underwent cancer treatment. It helped him eat and avoid nausea, he said, so he knows the benefits firsthand.
New Mexico is one of 28 states where medical marijuana is allowed. The District of Columbia and eight states – neighboring Colorado among them – allow recreational use.
In an interview, Apodaca said he supports legalization and believes it would boost the economy and create jobs.
“Done the correct way,” he said, “I think it’s an opportunity for New Mexico.”
Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales said the criminalization of marijuana has sent too many young adults into the criminal justice system.
“It’s time to legalize marijuana and establish a proper regulatory environment to tax and invest those monies into ending the cycle of substance addiction that is destroying the lives of New Mexico’s kids,” he said in a written statement.
Webber was the only Democratic candidate for governor in 2014 to support legalizing marijuana. He told the Journal in a written statement that acting quickly would allow New Mexico to develop its own brand – like Hatch chile – and encourage local companies to take over the market.
The state must do more to fight abuse of opioids and similar drugs, Webber said, but “pretending that recreational marijuana isn’t going to become an accepted part of the American experience is simply unrealistic.”
Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat who sponsored marijuana legislation this session, said some lawmakers are simply going to have to change their minds for the idea to make it out of his chamber anytime soon.
A proposed constitutional amendment failed on the Senate floor last year, and legalization bills didn’t make it out of committee this year. Ortiz y Pino called it a “real setback.”
“The people are way ahead of the legislators on this,” Ortiz y Pino said. “Unless they express themselves to their legislators and persuade them, I don’t see how we can get past” the opposition in key committees.
Emily Kaltenbach, New Mexico director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which supports legalization, said the debate this year was helpful, even if the legislation didn’t pass. Advocates will work on addressing some objections and questions – such as how to tax marijuana, how to handle who’s allowed to grow it and where the revenue would go.
“I think we’re close to getting legislative support,” she said. “I think it’s just about the details.”