March 19, 2019

Mixed bag for cannabis legislation in 2019

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Photo Credit: ChelseyHerba Flickr via Compfight cc

After Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was elected and New Mexico’s House of Representatives saw a major increase of Democrats last fall, many New Mexicans speculated whether the state would also see cannabis legalization in 2019. The short answer was ultimately, no. But, the legislature enacted some major changes to the existing medical cannabis law and took at least one step towards decreasing jail time  for the use or possession of cannabis.

Medical cannabis in schools (SB 204)

Senate Bill 204, sponsored by Albuquerque Sens. Candace Gould, a Republican, and Jacob Candelaria, a Democrat, and Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, would allow some students to use medical cannabis while at school.

A few cases of parents fighting for their children’s access to medical cannabis sparked the legislation this year, but the final version awaiting action from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham still gives some autonomy to school staff and faculty.

If signed into law, school districts or an individual charter school could still opt out if they can show federal funding would be compromised by having cannabis on campus. Tisha Brick, the mother of a young medical cannabis patient was not happy with that change as she said she has battled with her son’s school over his use of medical cannabis. The bill passed both legislative chambers with minimal opposition, showing the popularity of medical cannabis. Lujan Grisham said during her campaign for governor that she was in favor of expanding and bolstering the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, but it’s still unclear where she stands on this particular issue.

Medical Cannabis Changes (SB 406)

Originally, Senate Bill 406, sponsored by Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, made sweeping changes to the state’s Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act, like broadening the list of medical cannabis qualifying conditions. Since the law passed almost a decade ago, those conditions have been expanded, but mostly through rule changes by the Department of Health, which oversees the Medical Cannabis Program. Some of those conditions, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, would be codified in law if Lujan Grisham signs it into law. That means, the Department of Health could not remove them through a rule change. The original bill further expanded the statutorily mandated allowed conditions, including autism spectrum disorder and substance abuse disorder, both of which were removed during the Senate committee process. The original bill also would have allowed “any other serious medical condition, medical treatment or disease that a medical practitioner believes would be alleviated by the use of cannabis,” but that was also removed in the committee process.

But, the bill passed by the Legislature would also add some clarifications to statute like definitions for cannabis “manufacturers” and “producers” and would also task the Department of Health with coming up with licensing requirements for both. If signed, the law would also allow the department to approve “consumption areas” under certain circumstances, essentially allowing patients to use medical cannabis at licensed medical cannabis establishments.

The bill also includes similar language as the “Medical Marijuana in Schools” bill, including the opt-out provision if a school district or charter school determines they could lose federal funding for having cannabis on school grounds. It is unclear how the medical cannabis in school provision of Senate Bill 406 would impact the governor’s decision on Senate Bill 204.

Three-year medical cannabis renewal (SB 404)

This bill extended the certification period for medical cannabis patients. Currently, medical cannabis patients must renew their status as a qualified patient every 12 months, which includes another recommendation from a licensed and approved health care provider. If signed, Senate Bill 404, sponsored by Sen. Bill O’Neill, D-Albuquerque, would extend the certification period to three years, under the condition that cannabis patients check in with their medical provider every year to determine whether they are still qualified to use medical cannabis. The law, if signed, would not eliminate the need for yearly visits to medical practitioners, but may significantly lower the Department of Health’s operating cost, according to the bill’s fiscal impact report.  

Decreasing penalties (SB 323)

While full legalization of recreational cannabis use did not happen this year, a decriminalization bill did make it to the governor’s desk. Senate Bill 323, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, would lower penalties for having small amounts of cannabis. Cervantes has long opposed full legalization, but has been sponsored bills to reduce penalties for years. According to the bill’s fiscal impact report, cannabis-related caseloads for both prosecutors and public defenders would be reduced significantly as many cases would not require court hearings under the possible new law, unless the charge is contested.

Cannabis regulation act(s)  (HB 356 and SB 577 )

Maybe the biggest disappointment for cannabis legalization advocates was that full legalization for recreational cannabis use did not make it to the governor’s desk. Although, many suspected 2019 was not the year for legal cannabis in New Mexico, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Legislators introduced two bills aimed at fully legalizing the adult, recreational use of cannabis this year. In the end, the House version made it the farthest, partially thanks to a compromise to include language from a Senate Republican bill that would establish state-run cannabis stores. House Bill 356 ultimately stalled in the conservative Senate Finance Committee. Chairman John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said one of the bill’s sponsors asked not to hold a hearing unless there were enough votes to pass it, which Smith said there weren’t. But, according to the Albuquerque Journal, Lujan Grisham said she would include the issue of legalization to the list of priorities during next year’s legislative session. Next year’s session will be focused on budget issues, but the governor can approve discussion of other issues.