February 23, 2019

Dueling bills lay out different visions for recreational marijuana

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.

“Legalization of cannabis is here,” said Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 577.

House Bill 356 would legalize the sale of cannabis for recreational use, tax it and also calls for erasing criminal records from some past marijuana-related arrests.

“I think most people recognize the war on drugs has failed, and this is one way of addressing that failure,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, a co-sponsor of House Bill 356.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 7-3 along party lines to send the measure to a vote of the full chamber.

The committee voted to tweak that bill, though, to ensure that employers could maintain a zero tolerance policy towards recreational cannabis use by workers.

If House Bill 356 passes the House, it would go to the Senate.

Meanwhile, the Senate Public Affairs Committee voted 5-0 to advance a bill that would legalize the sale of cannabis for recreational uses through state-run stores.

The bill is bound to run into opposition from the cannabis industry and from private individuals who prefer to grow their own, which would not be allowed.

But proponents argue that prohibiting small-scale production is key to cutting down on the black market for marijuana.

And at this point, the handful of Republican senators sponsoring the bill may be the only way to get any law legalizing cannabis through the Legislature’s upper chamber, where older and more conservative Democrats hold significant sway.

It is a long road ahead, though. Senate Bill 577 — which is also known as the Cannabis Regulation Act — must pass two more committees before it gets a vote of the full Senate. It heads next to the Senate Judiciary Committee.