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New Mexico Races to Legalize Pot by the End of February

PHOTO James Hills


New Mexico Races to Legalize Pot by the End of February

The race is on to become the 12th state in the union to legalize cannabis. With measures pending in the legislature, New Mexico isn’t racing against other states, but its own short legislative session.

New Mexico is serious about being the next state to legalize cannabis. But the state has a legislative session of just 30 days in 2020, and the deadline now looms ominously.

There is a sense of déjà vu here. Last year, New Mexico came very close to legalizing marijuana. A legalization measure was approved by the state’s House, but never made it out of the Senate — despite the support of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat. As a kind of consolation prize to cannabis advocates, a decriminalization bill did pass.

After that, Lujan Grisham launched a Cannabis Legalization Working Group, with members from the public and private sectors, as well as representatives from activist groups including the Drug Policy Alliance. In October, it issued its recommendations, calling for a legalization model based on “equity and opportunity,” with low licensing fees and “micro business” licenses designed to keep proceeds within local communities. 

When the session opened in January 2020, legalization bills were quickly introduced in both chambers of the statehouse. But with the finish line now just two weeks away, lawmakers are still nailing down the details. 

Down to the Wire 

Most people expect, that if the bill passes, it will be a close call — including Pat Davis, the Albuquerque city councilor who headed the Working Group. He told the Albuquerque Journal last month that he expects the measure’s fate to be decided during the final days of the session, which ends on Feb. 20.

It’s somewhat predictable that most opposition is coming from Republicans. Even Albuquerque’s Sen. Mark Moores, one of three Republican senators who last year joined with Democratic colleagues on a legalization bill, is now balking at the idea of cannabis legalization. One issue is that last year’s proposal would have allowed sale only through state-run stores. The new measure follows the recommendations of the Working Group for a more decentralized system based on small private operators.

On Jan. 28, the Senate Public Affairs Committee voted 4-3 along party lines to advance Senate Bill 115, the Cannabis Regulation Act, which would legalize personal use for those 21 years and older. It has yet to pass the Senate Judiciary Committee or the Finance Committee — where last year’s version died.

The bill calls for a 9% tax on cannabis sales. And, as the Santa Fe New Mexican notes, it has plenty of elements designed to appease conservative sentiment. It requires law enforcement agencies to compile an annual report on the number of arrests, citations and other violations connected to those using cannabis. It mandates “cannabis education programs” for middle and high school students, and funding of additional substance abuse treatment programs. In what will certainly be a controversial move, it calls for police to devise an “oral fluid test” to determine if motorists are driving under the influence.

Beyond compromises that may end up not pleasing either side, however, there is also a degree of sheer confusion in the proposed legislation.

‘Haze of Unknowns’ 

A Feb. 5 editorial in the Albuquerque Journal was unable to resist the smart-alecky headline “Haze of unknowns clouds legislation on recreational cannabis.” But after you get past the puns, it noted some of the confusion around SB 115 and its counterpart House Bill 160. 

For one thing, the “timelines don’t track.” Under the proposed legislation, existing cannabis retailers operating under the state’s medical marijuana program (in place since 2007) will be able to start adult-market sales on Jan. 1, 2021. But that’s also the deadline for the regulations overseeing the market to be issued — meaning those retailers be “forced to comply on the fly.”

Complicating it further, those regs are for seed-to-sale tracking, quality control and the like. But the mandatory server training rules don’t even have to be drawn up until April 1, 2021 — leaving retailers unregulated for three months.

And while customers have to be 21, the servers can be 18. The Journal asks: “How does that make any sense?”

Then there’s the strange contradiction that “recreational” buyers will be able to get more product than medical patients. Current law limits medical users to eight ounces every 90 days, though recreational users will be able to buy two ounces per transaction. Retailers will supposedly be required to reserve enough product for the state’s 80,000-plus medical users, but there are concerns about shortages — especially because there will be no increase in the number of plants commercial growers are allowed.

The closing assessment of the Journal’s editorial may prove accurate: “There are simply too many unanswered questions, too many contradictions and too hard of a push to get recreational cannabis through in a short 30-day budget session.”

It is clear that lawmakers in Santa Fe are going to have to work fast if they are to avoid a repeat of last year’s narrow defeat for legal cannabis in the Land of Enchantment.

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