February 10, 2016

Marijuana legalization clears first hurdle

A proposal to legalize marijuana advanced from the Senate Rules Committee Wednesday morning, in a fashion that even a key supporter found surprising.

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, presenting marijuana legalization to the Senate Rules Committee.

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, presenting marijuana legalization to the Senate Rules Committee.

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The Senate Rules Committee initially voted against a do-pass motion, which would send the proposed constitutional amendment to the Senate Judiciary Committee with a recommendation to pass. The vote was on party lines with Democrats in favor and Republicans against; there were an equal number of each in the committee Wednesday.

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Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, then asked for a do-pass with no recommendation. Sen. Ted Barela, R-Estancia, joined all Democrats present and voted for the legislation.

If the Senate and House both approve the proposal, voters would be asked to vote on the issue, most likely on the November ballot.

This is the second-straight year that this legislation has passed the Senate Rules Committee.

“I think we were surprised with the no-recommendation,” Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico state director Emily Kaltenbach told NM Political Report after the vote. “But we’re obviously very pleased, since this gives us an opportunity to make some of those amendments that we had discussed.”

The amendments included a suggestion by Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, that the proposal require the Legislature to pass enabling legislation and an idea by sponsor Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, to include sunset so the language is not permanently in the constitution and instead moves forward in statute.

Ortiz y Pino cited tapping the land grant permanent fund temporarily as precedent.

Kaltenbach said she felt these changes would make it “more palatable and we will get it to the Senate floor for a robust discussion.”

A number of representatives of county sheriff’s and the New Mexico Sheriff’s Association opposed the legislation.

Jack LeVick, executive director of the New Mexico Sheriff’s Association, told the committee that hospitalization among children who consumed edibles in Colorado increased since that state legalized marijuana.

“One of the newest problems that is facing all of the communities is the homeless people,” LeVick said, saying they go to Colorado to smoke marijuana.

Senators on the panel focused mainly on two issues: That the momentum is moving towards legalization of marijuana throughout the country and whether legalization belongs in the state constitution.

“We’re going to have to figure it out,” Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, said. “I don’t believe it belongs in the constitution but it is something that we’re going to have to be dealing with.”

Ortiz y Pino agreed that legalization in New Mexico would occur, and noted how quickly things were moving in other states.

“Two years ago, we would have been the second state to have adopted legalization of marijuana,” he said. “Last year we would have been the fifth state.”

Now, Ortiz y Pino added, “I just hope we’re not the 49th state.”

Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, said that Ortiz y Pino might see more support among legislators if he puts it in statute instead of the constitution.

“I think you’d be better off, quite frankly and I know there’s some strategery, just proposing straight up legislation in statute,” Rue said.

Pirtle said that it was “a giant punt” to send it to the voters instead of doing it statutorily.

Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, was not present at the meeting.