The 2020 legislative session starts tomorrow and besides the standard 30-day budgetary issues, many eyes are on cannabis and whether this is the year it becomes legal to use recreationally. Last week, two lawmakers filed bills aimed doing just that.
Rep. Javier Martinez and Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, both Albuquerque Democrats, are cosponsors of the Senate version of the Cannabis Regulation Act. Martinez is the sponsor of the House version of the bill.
The bills are largely based on recommendations from a legalization work group and a legalization bill that failed to get to the governor’s desk last year. Both bills are 175 pages long and prescribe how recreational should be taxed, age limits for possessing or consuming cannabis and which state entities will be involved.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced last year that she would support a comprehensive legalization bill and added to “the call” this year. It is nearly unheard of for legislation to make it to the governor’s desk without some amendments, so these two bills will likely change in the next 30 days, but here are some key points of the bills.
Various different lawmakers have tried to pass recreational legalization bills over the years, but 2019 marked the farthest in the process a proposal made it in recent history.
The New Mexico Department of Health has proposed a list of rule changes for the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, which would add guidelines for designated “consumption areas” and reciprocity for medical cannabis patients enrolled in medical cannabis programs in other states.
After major changes to the state’s medical cannabis law made during the 2019 legislative session, the law now states that a consumption area is, “an area within a licensed premises approved by the department where cannabis may be consumed that complies with rule as established by the department.”
The department’s proposed changes would require consumption areas to be “located on the premises of licensed non-profit producers” and medical cannabis patients who use cannabis in said areas to have a designated driver or use “other lawful means of transportation” when leaving.
If the rule is finalized by the DOH Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel, medical cannabis producers who want to open a consumption area would be required to submit safety and security plans to the department for approval. Only existing producers would be able to apply to open consumption areas.
The department has also proposed a rule that would outline reciprocity for medical cannabis patients from outside New Mexico. Not to be confused with a change in law that allows non-residents of New Mexico to enroll in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, reciprocity would allow patients already enrolled in another state’s medical cannabis program to buy and consume cannabis in New Mexico without having to enroll in the program. A reciprocal patient would only need to provide identification and a medical cannabis card from their home state to purchase up to about 8 ounces of dried cannabis flower or corresponding extracts in a rolling three month period, which is consistent with what New Mexico cannabis patients can buy. Dispensaries would be required to enter reciprocal patient information in a DOH-run patient tracking system.
Other changes include a new fee structure and new testing standards for medical cannabis producers.
Out of state residents who qualify as a medical cannabis patient are now eligible to get a New Mexico medical cannabis card.
A state district judge ruled Thursday that the New Mexico Department of Health must issue medical cannabis cards to qualified patients, regardless of where they live full-time. Thursday’s hearing was the latest in a back-and-forth between a medical cannabis producer and state officials—including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham—over whether a recent change in law opened the state’s program to non-residents.
Though the judge ruled that DOH would have to start issuing cards to non-residents, the governor’s office said they aren’t giving up.
Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for Lujan Grisham, said the governor’s office plans to appeal the decision, but not before he took a shot at one of the petitioners in the case, Duke Rodriguez, who is an Arizona resident and also the president and CEO of the prominent medical cannabis producer Ultra Health. “We remain of the opinion that New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program should not be bulldozed by an out-of-state litigant operating with his own financial interests at heart rather than those of the state’s medical program or of the many New Mexicans who depend upon it,” Stelnicki said in a statement. “Today’s decision contradicts both the intent of the legislative sponsor and the interpretation of the New Mexico Department of Health, and the state plans to appeal the decision.”
Rodriguez declined to comment on what he called a “personal attack,” but that he’s ultimately happy with the decision
“There was a lot of good testimonies from both sides today, but I think the judge did a superb job of refining the issues down to one core issue—that if you were to remove the word cannabis from the discussion this becomes an issue of treating it like any other medical care,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez is one of the three petitioners, all of whom reside primarily in other states, who asked the court to compel DOH to issue cards to non-residents. DOH did not officially deny the applications from the three petitioners, but the department placed their applications on hold until they could show a valid New Mexico identification card address.
David Morgan, a spokesman for DOH, said the department hasn’t determined whether they will start approving applications that come from out of state residents.
“We are considering how to proceed given the judge’s ruling and the fact that an appeal is forthcoming,” Morgan said.
If DOH does start issuing cards to non-residents, the next question is whether the state can adequately supply patients with enough cannabis.
Plant counts for producers has long been an issue, specifically involving Rodriguez and DOH.
For much of the Medical Cannabis Program’s existence, producers were only allowed to have 450 plants at any given time.
As New Mexico lawmakers try to come up with a legislative proposal to legalize recreational cannabis that might ease the apprehension of some of their colleagues, there is already a group of business owners already laying the groundwork for a post-legalization world.
Sometimes they’re called ancillary cannabis companies, other times they’re called cannabis adjacent businesses. Regardless of what they’re called, there is a network of New Mexico businesses that provide services to medical cannabis producers. Some of those businesses, which range from real estate to technology companies, have come up with innovative ways to help the medical cannabis industry, prepare for legalized cannabis and even break out into the non-cannabis industry.
Jeff Holland and Siv Watkins are the partners behind 11Biomics, a company which specializes in protecting cannabis plants from powdery mildew. Holland, who is from Albuquerque, said the business got its start with a business incubator in California’s Bay Area. Despite offers to keep the company on the west coast, the company opted to bring its technology back to New Mexico to help medical cannabis growers and hopefully stimulate the economy.
“We really want New Mexico to be the leader in this area,” Holland said.
That area, specifically, is soil treatment to combat harmful plant diseases instead of spraying plants with pesticides.
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.
Since Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a task force to study possible cannabis legalization measures last month, some in the medical cannabis community expressed concerns about proper representation.
The Cannabis Legalization Working Group, the governor’s office said, will work this year and send their recommendations to Lujan Grisham before next year’s 30-day legislative session. Lujan Grisham announced earlier this year that she would add legalizing cannabis for adult recreational use to the call next year. In even numbered years, all legislation related to budgetary matters are considered “germane”, but the governor can give permission for legislators to discuss other issues.
Some medical cannabis patients and patient advocates have long warned lawmakers of passing legalization proposals that might harm the medical cannabis program. Now, at least one patient and even medical cannabis producers are scratching their heads wondering why the Cannabis Legalization Working Group does not include actual patients.
Patients want a seat at the table
Ginger Grider is a medical cannabis patient and works with the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients Advocate Alliance. Grider, who lives in Portales, said rural parts of the state regularly see shortages or outages in local dispensaries.
After a three-hour debate Thursday night, the state House of Representatives by a narrow margin — 36-34 — approved a measure that would legalize recreational use of marijuana in New Mexico. Any resident 21 years or older would be allowed to buy, possess and use cannabis under the proposal, which also would create a state oversight commission. House Bill 356 next heads to the Senate for consideration. If the Senate approves it, it would go to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has said she favors legalizing recreational marijuana if the proper safeguards are put in place. If such a proposal became law, New Mexico would become the 11th state to decriminalize marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law.
Very different visions for legalizing cannabis in New Mexico are a bit closer to becoming reality after legislative hearings on Saturday. A bill that would legalize recreational cannabis for adults over 21 and task the state with licensing retailers to sell the product is headed to a vote of the full House of Representatives after winning the approval of a key committee. Just a few hours later, a Senate committee backed a Republican-sponsored proposal to legalize cannabis and allow for sales from state-owned stores. It remains unclear whether the full Senate would approve either bill this year, making the campaign to legalize cannabis something of a long shot as the legislative session nears its end March 16. But with a new governor who has said she would sign a bill legalizing marijuana with the right provisions in place, both pieces of legislation have stirred a debate that was hypothetical a year ago.
One of the biggest unanswered questions during this year’s legislative session is whether New Mexico will become the next state to legalize cannabis for recreational use. Legal cannabis is dependent on a handful of hold-outs in the state Senate, but one bill that would ease the state’s laws on cannabis, years in the making and sponsored by one of those hold-outs, cleared its first committee Tuesday. The Senate Public Affairs Committee passed Senate Bill 323 on a 5-1 vote Tuesday evening. Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, sponsored similar legislation to replace criminal charges with fines for possessing relatively small amounts of cannabis since 2015. With each attempt, the proposal has gained more support in the Legislature.
Proponents of legalizing marijuana have long pointed to a prospective windfall they say state and local governments could enjoy by taxing products that now circulate on the black market. But the sponsors of a bill to legalize marijuana in New Mexico have an unlikely goal. They don’t want to tax it too much. And there’s a reason why. “Our goal was to stay under 20 percent,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, a Democrat from Albuquerque who is co-sponsoring House Bill 356, known as the Cannabis Regulation Act.