Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – With three weeks to go in New Mexico’s 60-day legislative session, the outlook for adult-use cannabis legalization remains hazy at best.
But backers of four legalization bills still in the mix at the Roundhouse expressed optimism Saturday that a compromise measure – likely a mashup of the various proposals – could move forward and reach Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk before the legislative session ends.
A Senate committee spent more than three hours Saturday scrutinizing the bills but did not vote on them, instead directing bill sponsors to try to hash out their differences over the next week.
“I think we’ve got plenty of time,” Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, said in an interview after the hearing, citing a bipartisan willingness to work on a marijuana legalization bill after years of debate on the subject. “We’re feeling really good.”
The Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee discussion came one day after the House voted 39-31 to approve a legalization bill sponsored by Martínez and others that would authorize commercial sales to begin in January 2022.
That bill, House Bill 12, could be amended in the Senate and then advanced, which would avoid the need for House committees to vote on it again, said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe.
However, several Republicans suggested they would not support the House-approved bill in its current form and prefer other approaches to cannabis legalization.
“I think it’s time to end prohibition, but there are things that have to be in there – or not in there – for me to (vote to) do it,” said Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho.
Indeed, while a growing number of New Mexico lawmakers appear to see legalization of recreational cannabis as imminent, several issues are still being debated.
Details scrutinized Saturday included tax rates, water rights, revenue uses, personal production limits and regulation of a new legal marijuana industry.
The tax rates in the four bills under consideration would range from 12% to 21%, with most of the generated revenue going to the state and a smaller amount to cities and counties.
Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, sponsor of one of the four bills, Senate Bill 288, said an excessively high tax rate could lead many to continue to buy cannabis on the black market.
“We don’t want to put the tax rate so high … that we tax the legal cannabis out of the market,” Pirtle said.
Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said there should be no cap on plants or licenses for producers, adding that existing plant count limits in the state’s medical cannabis program have led to chronic supply shortages.
He also said he envisions New Mexico eventually exporting cannabis products, though such interstate commerce would hinge on federal legalization of cannabis.
“You don’t get your green chile from New Jersey,” Candelaria said. “Why get your cannabis from anywhere else than New Mexico?”
New Mexico would become the 16th state to legalize recreational cannabis if a bill is signed into law this year by Lujan Grisham, who supports doing so as long as legislation includes safeguards for children and medical cannabis users.
And recent polls have shown support across all regions of New Mexico for legalizing recreational marijuana use and taxing its sales.
“We simply cannot afford to wait another year,” said Rep. Tara Lujan, D-Santa Fe, citing recent cannabis-related laws in several neighboring states, including Arizona, where voters approved a legalization referendum last year.
But some lawmakers remain skeptical in a state with one of the nation’s highest drug overdose rates.
Sen. Michael Padilla, D-Albuquerque, shared the story of an individual close to him who died at a young age after starting to smoke marijuana as a teenager.
He also asked questions about possible political interference within a proposed cannabis regulatory board that would be established under several of the bills to oversee the industry.
The 60-day legislative session ends March 20.