February 20, 2019

With the fate of legal cannabis unclear, decriminalization back on the table

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.

In 2015, the same committee passed the effort on a 4-2 vote and in 2017 it passed on a 5-0 vote. That year the proposal made it through the House committee process and stalled on the House floor, never receiving a vote.

Undeterred on Tuesday, Cervantes sat in front of Public Affairs members, business as usual.

“Fundamentally, the goal here is to not make possession of small amounts of marijuana a crime, but to treat it as a civil offense,” Cervantes told the panel.

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, ultimately voted to advance the bill, but still raised his concerns, one of which goes back to 2015.

“I just pulled up the image of an ounce and it’s a lot,” Brandt said. “It’s a lot of weed.”

But Brandt brought up a new concern, too. This year, for the first time, the Rio Rancho senator is attempting to legalize recreational cannabis with his own bill that would require recreational dispensaries to be run by the state. Brandt hinted during the committee hearing that he’s not confident his bill will become law, but asked how Cervantes’ bill would fit in with legalization for adults over 21. Cervantes said he hadn’t studied Brandt’s bill and reminded the committee that his views on cannabis was not as straightforward as some.

“I think you asked me to sign it and I was intrigued by it and remain intrigued by it,” Cervantes said of Brandt’s legalization bill. “I kind of very publicly did not support legalization, but I’m very intrigued by it.”

Sen. Candace Gould, R-Albuquerque, said she was also concerned how decriminalization would apply to people under the age of 21, specifically if the state eventually legalizes adult recreational use.

“We don’t want younger people getting engaged in marijuana,” Gould said.

Gould was the only dissenting vote.  

Another sign that the times are changing is that no one during public comment spoke out against it, including Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce lobbyist J.D. Bullington.

“You might ask, ‘What is the state’s largest and oldest business organization doing in a committee like this, supporting legislation like this?’” Bullington said.

The answer, Bullington said, is that the powerful business group has seen how a criminal conviction for possessing cannabis can negatively impact career options for young people.

Wacky Tobaccy

Committee members also joked about past use of cannabis and alcohol.  

In response to questions about keeping cannabis out of the hands of teenagers, Cervantes said he would rather not ruin lives, but hinted at his own experience.

“I’m going to say this cautiously, but I was young once and I was around a lot of young people who were very foolish and some of them made their life very difficult by foolishness, whether it was alcohol or drugs or whatever,” Cervantes said. “And, I didn’t make those mistakes or else I didn’t get caught making those mistakes.”

Brandt encouraged Cervantes to amend his bill to line up with current penalties for underage drinking, noting that he has never “done any marijuana,” but did drink alcohol before he was 21, sometimes to excess.

“You can become a Supreme Court justice these days,” Cervantes said, referring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

But possibly the most candid anecdotes came from Senate Minority Leader Stuart Ingle, R-Portales, who voted in favor of the bill, but said the state has only “scratched the surface” on the issue of cannabis and how it affects the ability to drive safely.

“When I had a little shot or two of it, it was from a Peace Corp volunteer in Colombia,” Ingle recounted and later went on to say he “definitely…wasn’t going to be able to drive.”

Cervantes responded with his own question back to Ingle.

“How long ago are we talking about Senator? Was this last summer?” Cervantes asked, jokingly.

Ingle also divulged that he’s not the only one in his family to try cannabis.

“My dad smoked it back in the ‘30s. He called it ‘wacky tobaccy’ then,” Ingle said.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has expressed caution with immediate full legalization, but it’s unclear where she stands on this bill. A spokesperson from her office said the governor would continue to monitor Cervantes’ decriminalization bill as it moves through the Legislature.

Update: Added comment from the governor’s office.