Latest bill to legalize marijuana gains steam in Legislature
By Steve Terrell
Recreational marijuana would become legal for people 21 or older in New Mexico and the state could tax marijuana sold in licensed stores under a bill introduced Thursday by state Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque.
House Bill 356 would establish a licensing system that supporters say favors small businesses and institute a 9 percent tax on marijuana for buyers who are not patients in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program.
The revenue would go for research and education as well as community grants for workforce training, substance misuse treatment, mental health treatment, and youth drug-education and prevention programs.
Cities and counties would be allowed to opt out of allowing retail marijuana sales.
“It’s time to be smart about the war on drugs,” Martínez told The New Mexican in an interview last week. He called the decadeslong state and federal anti-marijuana policies a failure.
“We have the chance to pass an innovative legalization bill that stays true to New Mexican values and what we care most about: the well-being of our children, healthy and safe communities, and a stronger economic future,” said Emily Kaltenbach, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization that has been involved in drug policy reform efforts in the state for about 20 years.
HB 356 would automatically seal certain cannabis-related criminal records and allow for the possible recall or dismissal of the sentence for a person currently incarcerated for cannabis offenses that would no longer be violations under the new law.
“Cannabis prohibition has fueled mass criminalization and we have an ethical obligation to repair the disproportionate harms inflicted on Latino, black and Native people,” Kaltenbach said. “This legislation is responsive to the lives of New Mexicans, not solely business interests.”
The conventional wisdom at the Capitol is that the bill will pass the House but could stall in the Senate, where Republicans and conservative Democrats have sunk such efforts in the past.
Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said Thursday she’s inclined to oppose HB 356. “There are too many concerns about legalizing marijuana, too many issues to consider,” she said. “I support medical marijuana, but when it comes to legalization, I believe New Mexico should move slowly.”
But, she added, she had yet to read the bill.
“I try to keep an open mind,” she said.
The Drug Policy Alliance claims the legislation would raise about $40 million in new tax revenue and create more than 11,000 jobs in just the first year.
Martínez, however, said he’s not stressing that aspect of legalization.
“That’s not one of my main arguments,” he said. “I know it won’t solve all our problems in the state.”
Martínez’s 140-page bill is co-sponsored by Reps. Antonio “Moe” Maestas and Debbie Armstrong — both Albuquerque Democrats — and Reps. Daymon Ely, D-Corrales, and Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, assigned the bill to two committees, Health and Human Services, which is chaired by Armstrong, and Judiciary.
That’s a big change from just a few years ago. When then-Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Las Cruces, introduced similar legalization in 2015, then-Speaker Don Tripp, a Republican from Socorro, assigned it to five committees, which effectively guaranteed it wouldn’t make it to the House floor.
Another change that could help the bill is the fact that the governor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, has said she would sign a legalization bill if it contained certain protections.
Claudia Tristán, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Thursday that Lujan Grisham will study HB 356 to be sure the safeguards she wants are there.
“She just wants to be cautious,” Tristán said.
Among Lujan Grisham’s priorities for a legalization bill are ensuring patients in the decade-old medical cannabis program aren’t harmed. She also has asked for a bill that deals with workplace intoxication, public safety, underage consumption and regulates edible marijuana products. Martínez said last week he believes the bill contains the elements the governor wants.