February 4, 2017

Pot proposal advances in House but faces uncertain future

Adults over 21 would be able to legally buy, possess and smoke marijuana under a bill that survived its first hearing Saturday in the state House of Representatives.

The Consumer and Public Affairs Committee voted 3-1 to advance the bill without a recommendation. Sponsored by Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, House Bill 89 moves ahead to the House Judiciary Committee.

His proposal would tax and regulate recreational marijuana, as is done in eight other states, including neighboring Colorado. It would earmark 40 percent of taxes from cannabis sales for education and designate other proceeds to government programs.

But don’t spark up yet. There’s a long road before marijuana could become legal in the state.

Even if the Legislature approves the bill, Republican Gov. Susana Martinez almost certainly would veto it. “The governor does not support legalizing drugs,” Martinez’s spokesman, Michael Lonergan, said last month when asked about the bill.

It’s doubtful that bill supporters would have anywhere near enough votes to override a veto.

And even though President Donald Trump has said individual states should decide on marijuana laws, his nominee for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is a staunch opponent of legalization. So it’s unclear whether Trump’s administration would go after states that have legalized marijuana.

McCamley told the committee that approving his bill would mean “more jobs right now.” Referring to a recent study commissioned by a medical marijuana producer, he said that more than $400 million would go into the economy.

McCamley said the southern Colorado city of Trinidad is getting a lot of business from New Mexicans. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who lives in Taos, has said he buys marijuana in Trinidad.

Legalizing marijuana would mean less money for Mexican drug cartels and would take a burden off law enforcement, McCamley said.

The bill, he said, would reduce the tax on medical marijuana and would legalize production of industrial hemp. Hemp is a cousin of the marijuana plant, but it is not smoked. Hemp is used to make products from carpet to dashboards to clothing.

Committee Chairman Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, said he’s on the fence about marijuana legalization. He brought up technical issues in setting up a program in the state. That’s why he asked to move the bill ahead without a recommendation instead of a “do-pass” motion.

Steve Allen of the American Civil Liberties Union testified that one of the worst things about keeping marijuana illegal is that, even though white and black people use the drug at about the same rate, blacks are four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

Heath Grider, a fifth-generation farmer from Portales, told the committee he supports the bill because of the jobs it could bring. “I used to be against legalizing marijuana,” he said. “I thought it was a big scary thing. Then I got on the Google machine and found out that it wasn’t.”

Most of those who spoke in opposition to the bill were Republican legislators

Rep. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, said he recently attended a party given by his niece where “marijuana was abundant.” He said edible marijuana, including THC-infused gumballs, was available where children could have ingested it.

Terri Cole, executive director of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, also testified against the bill, saying New Mexico should not be an “early adopter” of marijuana legalization. She said issues related to the workplace and how much control an employer can have over employees’ private lives have yet to be worked out.

The best hope for legalization as long as Martinez is governor probably is a proposed constitutional amendment. Constitutional amendments are not subject to a governor’s veto. If legislators approve them, they appear on the statewide ballot for a final decision by a vote of the people.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, has said he’ll introduce such an amendment. Ortiz y Pino also is sponsoring Senate Bill 278, which is identical to McCamley’s proposal.

Contact Steve Terrell at 505-986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com. Read his political blog at www.santafenewmexican.com/news/blogs/politics.