October 12, 2018

Despite increased acceptance, obstacles remain for legalizing recreational marijuana

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A majority of New Mexico voters support legalizing recreational marijuana. And a governor who opposes the idea will leave office at the start of the year, giving hope to some supporters of the idea.

But even if New Mexico’s next governor supports the legalization of recreational marijuana, a familiar obstacle would still stand in the way: the state Senate.

State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino has sponsored legislation to legalize recreational marijuana since 2014. He’s tried with constitutional amendments in the past, but if Michelle Lujan Grisham, who supports legalization, wins office then the effort will go through regular statue.

And he knows that even though public sentiment has shifted, 2019 still won’t be the year things go his way.

“It’s going to be tough,” Ortiz y Pino told NM Political Report. “The House will probably vote for it. The Senate is going to be its usual thirty-years-behind-the-times self.”

The Albuquerque Democrat attributed opposition in part to the age of senators.

“I think it’s a generational or a cultural thing more than anything,” Ortiz y Pino said.

This isn’t stopping supporters from working to make legalization of recreational marijuana a reality.

Emily Kaltenbach, the director of the New Mexico chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance, noted that of the eight states that have legalized recreational marijuana, only one state has done so through the legislative process—Vermont. All other states, including New Mexico’s northern neighbor, Colorado, legalized recreational marijuana through ballot initiatives. New Mexico law, however, does not provide for statewide ballot initiatives.

Kaltenbach says Vermont is “a model for states to follow a path to get through a legislative process.”

There are benefits to passing the effort through the legislative process—like no need for an expensive, likely contentious and time-consuming campaign.

Kaltenbach said the Drug Policy Alliance is already working on the steps to move the bill through the Legislature.

One step is to get feedback and buy-in from many stakeholders and communities, including law enforcement, the medical cannabis community and others.

Kaltenbach says the Drug Policy Alliance has worked on a bill that would include protections for children, medical cannabis patients and drivers. But they still want feedback.

“We’re holding a series of community conversations around the state,” she said. “We plan to take this to clinicians, we plan to take it to the business community, with the faith-based communities.”

The Drug Policy Alliance thinks that revenue from taxes on recreational marijuana should go towards things like funding Medicaid or programs for drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

Still, she acknowledges the tough pathway to legalization.

“We have yet to get a piece of legislation through both chambers,” Kaltenbach said. “So even if the governor is open to signing a bill, that doesn’t mean that in this next year there is something to the governor’s desk.”

Ortiz y Pino also thinks that the revenue from marijuana sales could help the state. He previously said the money would go towards various efforts to improve the state, including money for public schools and substance abuse and behavioral health programs.

Senate

In 2016, the effort reached the floor of the Senate as a constitutional amendment. Passing that legislation would have required a majority of the chamber, not just those voting, but also would have bypassed the governor and instead gone to voters for approval.

The Senate voted against the proposed amendment 17-24.

Six Democrats voted against the proposal, and are unlikely to change their minds. Some changes in the Senate since then include two Republicans losing to Democrats, with one Democratic supporter losing to a Republican.

Ortiz y Pino thinks a change in approach could change the minds of some Republicans, giving an alternate pathway to passage.

“I don’t want to count on them, but several of them have indicated to me it’s certainly something they could support if it’s not a constitutional amendment,” Ortiz y Pino said. “That was the excuse they gave previously for voting against it, that it didn’t belong in the constitution.”

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