Cannabis working group

Cannabis legalization task force aims for compromise

A group tasked with creating a proposal to legalize cannabis in New Mexico met for the second time to discuss specifics of licensing and regulation as well as how to maintain a medical cannabis program. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Working Group on Marijuana Legalization met for more than five hours on Wednesday and heard from a couple dozen members of the public. 

This is for the naysayers

Pushes for cannabis legalization in the Legislature are nothing new. For years there have been attempts to legalize cannabis by changing the state constitution, as constitutional amendments do not require approval by the governor, and former Gov. Susana Martinez vocally opposed the idea. But the last legislative session showed increased signs of success for proponents. Two different bills, one that pushed for state-run stores and sponsored by Senate Republicans and another without a state-run store provision, saw increased support. 

Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, sponsored a legalization bill in the House and he is now a member of the working group. Martinez said he thinks the group’s “cognitive diversity” will help convince lawmakers who are against legalization, but still open to the idea.  

“I think that out of this process will emerge consensus across the board,” Martinez said.

NM governor intervenes in court case over medical cannabis cards

New Mexico’s governor has officially become a party in a legal battle over whether medical cannabis cards should be issued to out-of-state residents. 

On Wednesday, a state district judge approved Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s request to intervene in the case, which arose after a prominent medical cannabis producer challenged the state on wording in a state statute related to who can become a medical cannabis patient in New Mexico. 

In a motion to add Lujan Grisham as an intervening party, her lawyers argued that the governor’s office is better suited than the state Department of Health to address some issues in the case. 

Related: Cannabis legalization task force aims for compromise

“Public safety considerations such as the interstate transportation of marijuana, which is a violation of federal and state law, and diversion concerns are critical state policy matters,” the court filing read. 

Kenny Vigil, the director of the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, was originally named in court documents but Lujan Grisham’s office argued that Vigil cannot adequately represent the state. 

“[Vigil] lacks authority to address law enforcement concerns, approve regulatory action, or direct healthcare policy for our State,” the court filing read. “Thus, the significant public policy considerations interests at issue cannot be fully addressed by the current parties to this litigation and could be substantially affected or impaired.”

While at a task force convened by the governor to examine cannabis legalization, Department of Health Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel said the issue is too complex for her department alone. 

“It’s such an important matter,” Kunkel said. “What it could impact is significant. It’s beyond the Department of Health.” 

A lawyer with the department told NM Political Report he could not speak for the governor’s office, but did say Lujan Grisham’s office took an interest in the case because it dealt with “interstate issues.”

The court case goes back to an attempt by New Mexico medical cannabis producer Ultra Health to encourage those who qualify as a medical cannabis patient but do not live in New Mexico to apply for a medical card. The company’s reasoning was that a law change removed the term “resident of New Mexico” and replaced it with “person” in the definition of “qualified patient.” 

Almost immediately, the Department of Health dismissed the idea that legislators intended to open the state’s Medical Cannabis Program to residents from other states.

Ben Ray Luján aims to connect with voters across the state

On a quiet Saturday morning, just as an early morning rain had stopped and the clouds drifted away, a pile of inflatable rafts sat piled under a tree at La Llorona Park in Las Cruces. Soon, about a dozen teenagers trickled into the park, ready to float about 3 miles down the river with U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján. 

Luján’s district is about 300 miles north of the public park, named after a folklore character associated with rivers and children, that butts up against the Rio Grande. Luján wasn’t there on official business, but instead to engage with young people from other parts of the state not within his congressional district as part of his campaign for U.S. Senate. 

Luján’s name is likely familiar to those who even casually follow political news. Earlier this year, he was tapped to become the assistant Speaker of the House, the fourth-highest rank in Democratic leadership. His father, Ben Luján, served as the New Mexico Speaker of the House and many have speculated that if Ben Ray Luján stayed the course in Congress he might be in line to succeed U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House.

NM releases settlement info from case against previous administration

A New Mexico department released specifics of legal settlements Tuesday between the Department of Public Safety and some of its former employees. 

The state’s General Services Department released specifics of the settlement agreements for former DPS employees Dianna DeJarnette, Terri Thornberry and former DPS Deputy Secretary Amy Orlando. 

RELATED: State law encourages secret payouts

The records from General Services show DeJarnette and Orlando each received settlements of $300,000, while Thornberry received $400,000. Thom Cole, a spokesman for the General Services, said the release is partially in response to increased interest in a large settlement that was agreed upon by former Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration. Cole said the department has been fielding public records requests for specifics of the settlement. But state law requires any claims settled by Risk Management — which is under General Services — have to remain confidential for 180 days and the law is somewhat ambiguous about when that 180 days starts.  

“Rather than have people continue to file [records requests] one after another, after another, trying to hit the right date, we just decided to go ahead and release them,” Cole said. 

The settlements are part of a lawsuit filed by DeJarnette, Thornberry and Orlando alleging employment discrimination and harrasment, specifically by former State Police Chief Pete Kassetas. 

Kassetas has been outspoken about the case since KRQE-TV first reported on it. He still maintains that the large settlement amount and the original confidentiality period of three years was at least partially to protect Martinez.

State judge says DOH will have to issue medical cannabis cards to out-of-state residents

A state district court judge on Monday ordered the state’s Medical Cannabis Program to start issuing medical cannabis cards to individuals who qualify, regardless of where they live. 

The question of whether non-residents of New Mexico could become medical cannabis patients started when major changes to the state’s medical cannabis law went into effect. One minor word replacement drastically changed who could become a patient, argued Duke Rodriguez, president and CEO of medical cannabis producer Ultra Health. Before July 2019, the law stated that qualified patients must be a resident of New Mexico. Now, the law defines a qualified patient as a “person.” Rodriguez’s company bought both internet and radio ads promoting the change. But the Department of Health, which oversees the Medical Cannabis Program, along with the governor and at least one legislator, argued the intention of the law was never to open the program up to non-residents. 

Now, barring a compelling argument from DOH, the state could be forced to expand eligibility to anyone from across the country. 

The law is clear

In his ruling Monday morning, Santa Fe district Judge Bryan Biedscheid wrote that the law is clear.

Ranked choice voting off the table this year for ABQ

The Albuquerque City Council voted 8-1 late Monday night to withdraw a proposition that would have asked voters to decide whether the city would use ranked choice voting for municipal elections. Even if the council had sent the issue to voters, the city’s elections would not see a change until 2021. 

After hearing from a few supporters of ranked choice voting, who expressed concern about educating voters ahead of November’s election, Councilor Don Harris, who sponsored the proposition, announced he was taking it off the table. 

“I’ll probably just withdraw this,” Harris said just before the council was set to vote on the proposition. Common Cause New Mexico Executive Director Heather Ferguson told the council her organization is usually emphatically behind voter initiatives, but that there are too many misunderstandings about ranked choice voting and the proposed language for the ballot was too vague. 

“Our main concern is we want an informed electorate,” Ferguson told the council. 

Ranked choice voting, sometimes referred to as instant run-off voting, is a process in which voters rank their candidates. During the tallying process, candidates who come in last are eliminated, and the second-choice votes on those ballots are picked until a candidate reaches 50 percent. Until 2009, a candidate in Albuquerque’s municipal elections needed to get a simple majority.

NM cabinet secretary wants to address secret settlements

A New Mexico law that allows legal settlements with state agencies to be kept a secret for at least six months may get a makeover in the next legislative session. 

General Services Department Secretary Ken Ortiz told NM Political Report his office, which oversees the state’s Risk Management Division, is in the process of creating a working group to address a relatively unknown statute that mandates settlements stay secret for 180 days. The same law that established the Risk Management Division, which often serves as the state’s de facto insurance provider, contains a “confidentiality of records” section, which is often referred to by its citation number 15-7-9 as legal shorthand. 

That section of the statute is less than 300 words and is ambiguous about exactly when the 180 days starts. There are four instances in which the law says the clock starts ticking: when “all statutes of limitation applicable to the claim have run,” when litigation is done, when the “claim” is settled or when the claim is in “closed status.”

Ortiz said previous claims filed with Risk Management were sometimes never put into closed status, simply because someone failed to close it in division’s computer system. 

“I wanted to take the human element out of 15-7-9,” Ortiz said. 

The failure to “physically click on a button,” Ortiz said, would sometimes delay the start of the 180 days by an extra six months. 

“What we’ve seen when we reviewed settlements is, for whatever reason, it took several months after the final action on that case for the staff to administratively close it,” Ortiz said. 

That means a 180-day confidentiality period could easily run for more than a year.  Last year, for example, the New Mexico Corrections Department settled a lawsuit with six women who sued the state, claiming they were sexual assaulted and harassed by their superiors. That case was settled in January 2018, but GSD’s lawyer at the time said claims were not complete until all of the state’s legal bills were paid, which did not happen until six months after the case was dismissed. 

Now Ortiz said he’s working with the governor’s office and lawmakers to better define when the confidentiality period starts, and possibly address whether it should even be 180 days.  

Mr. Ortiz goes to the Legislature

Ortiz said he was aware of the confidentiality period before he took the job as cabinet secretary, but was not fully aware of the issues it presented until he started getting calls from news reporters—this one included—about settlements. 

“We thought, ‘This is truly tax payer money and people have a right to know,’” Ortiz said. 

Ortiz said conversations about transparency also came up when State Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, and State Rep. Linda Trujillo, D-Santa Fe, introduced a bill that would require the state to post the specifics of all human rights settlements online. Ortiz said he wants to include the two lawmakers in crafting legislation to address the issue.

NM group files suit against Sec. of State and AG over referendum process

A group of New Mexicans filed a lawsuit Thursday afternoon against two state officials who rejected numerous attempts to start the process to overturn laws passed in this year’s legislative session.   

The lawsuit, filed by former Libertarian attorney general candidate Blair Dunn on behalf of a group called the New Mexico Patriot Advocacy Coalition, asks a state district court judge in Curry County to deem actions taken by the two elected officials as unconstitutional. The lawsuit claims New Mexico Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver, in consultation with state Attorney General Hector Balderas, violated the rights of New Mexicans by denying 10 attempts to overturn recently passed laws. The state constitution allows for a referendum process in which petition signatures are gathered to overturn laws, though the process is rarely used and has only been successful once in state history. 

Previous attempts by House Minority Leader Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, to overturn gun restriction laws were also rejected. Townsend’s three attempts were denied by Toulouse Oliver for what she called technical errors and on the grounds that the state’s process for referendums to reverse laws does not apply to laws “providing for the public peace, health and safety.” One of Townsend’s attempts to overturn a gun background check law is among the ten instances the coalition says Toulouse wrongfully denied. The other petition attempts, filed by the coalition, aimed to overturn laws ranging from the recent minimum wage increase, election changes and a law that shot down the ability for local governments to enact right-to-work laws.

Mick Rich is running for Senate again

New Mexico commercial contractor Mick Rich is taking a second run for Senate. Rich told NM Political Report early Friday morning that he was running again in 2020. 

Rich said he has “learned a lot” since his last attempt to represent New Mexico in Washington D.C. Rich’s Senate campaign in 2018, when he lost to Martin Heinrich, was his first attempt at elected office. “As we approach the 2020 election cycle, we have acted on that learning,” Rich said. “Rather than rush to announce for an open seat, we have recruited a top-notch campaign team and have begun to contact major donors.”

The Senate seat is open because Sen. Tom Udall opted not to run for a third term. Udall’s announcement earlier this year set off speculation on who would run to replace the longtime elected officeholder.

NM cannabis producer, two from Texas asks court to rule on medical cards

Three people, who are not residents of New Mexico, are asking a state district judge to compel the New Mexico Department of Health to allow them to receive New Mexico medical cannabis cards. 

The court filing is the latest in a back-and-forth between New Mexico medical cannabis producer Ultra Health and DOH. While Ultra Health is not one of the petitioners, the companies’ president and CEO Duke Rodriguez is one of the three seeking a New Mexico card. 

Rodriguez, a resident of Arizona, and two Texas residents argue that state law allows them access to a New Mexico medical cannabis card and that DOH cannot deny access to the program based on non-residency alone. 

“As of the date of this filing, the Department of Health’s Medical Cannabis Program has refused to issue registry identification cards to eligible qualified patients, and in so doing it has failed to perform a ministerial non-discretionary duty,” the court filing states. The issue goes back to a bill passed in the 2019 legislative session, and later signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, which made sweeping changes to the state’s medical cannabis law. One change was in the definition of “qualified patient.” Prior to the changes this year, the law defined a qualified patient as a “resident of New Mexico.” Now, it simply defines a qualified patient as a “person.”

Both  Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor, and Lujan Grisham’s office told NM Political Report that the intention of the wording change was to allow for reciprocity with other states with medical cannabis programs. The new law also has a section outlining reciprocity and gives DOH until next year to come up with rules regarding that. 

But the three petitioners argue that the law change would accommodate those in the state for long work assignments, college students or those who spend long periods of time in the state, but do not qualify as a resident. Rodriguez falls in that last category.