February 12, 2016

Marijuana legalization headed to Senate floor

A proposal that would allow voters to weigh in on legalizing recreational marijuana passed its second test and will now advance to the Senate floor.

Marijuana budThe Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-4 in favor of the proposed constitutional amendment on party lines, marking the first time marijuana legalization legislation has ever made it to the floor of either chamber in the New Mexico Legislature.

Related Story: Marijuana legalization proposal dies on Senate floor

“The vote tonight made history because it’s never passed through two committees,” Emily Kaltenbach, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, said following the vote. “It’s a really important step and it shows just the momentum of the discussion and the will of the people have finally been listened to.”

The legislation passed the Senate Rules Committee earlier this week. When the legislation passed the Rules Committee in 2015, it was the first time such legislation had ever passed one committee.

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, left the committee before the vote. Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, voted in favor of the measure.

Cervantes has opposed marijuana reform before, but also last year sponsored a decriminalization bill. Kaltenbach said she wasn’t sure if Cervantes walking on the vote was part of a strategy to pass the bill.

“But we’ll take it,” she said, smiling.

Martinez’s vote may come as surprise, given his previous votes against decriminalizing marijuana. He said part of the reason he voted for the bill is because voters would get a chance to have a say.

“Lately I go to the grocery store, and I go everywhere and that’s the main thing all my constituents tell me, ‘You guys are going to vote to legalize marijuana, right,?’” Martinez said.

All Republicans on the committee voted against the measure. Most said they opposed it because they said marijuana doesn’t belong in the state constitution.

“Is this the kind of stuff we think our constitution was designed for?” Sen. Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque, asked.

Sen. Lisa Toracco, R-Albuquerque, compared arguments from the sponsors to U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s infamous statement about how lawmakers should vote for the Affordable Care Act bill and find out later what’s in it.

“I can’t do that,” Torocco said. “I’m receptive to it, but I’m not comfortable doing it this way.”

The measure, if approved by voters, would require the state Legislature to develop laws for how legalization would proceed during next year’s legislative session in what is called “enabling legislation.”

Marijuana would then be legal to sell starting Jan. 1, 2018.

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque and sponsor of the bill, recently added a provision where legalized marijuana would expire in 2025 unless the Legislature votes before then to keep marijuana legal.

Still, Ortiz y Pino and other supporters acknowledged that with time running out in the session and with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the bill still has a long way to go this year. But they argued that, with a majority of the state supporting legalization according to a recent poll, the public is ready.

“One of these days we’re going to get this done and it’s going to be better for the state,” Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, who attended the hearing and has similar legislation in the House, said.