October 17, 2019

Mixed responses to suggestions from marijuana legalization work group

Andy Lyman

A group convened by the governor and tasked with crafting a framework for cannabis legalization released their full recommendations on Wednesday. 

Many of the recommendations from the Marijuana Legalization Work group are either consistent with or similar to legislation introduced in the 2019 legislative session. Those include protecting the medical cannabis program and its patients, giving law enforcement tools to test for cannabis use and giving New Mexicans—even those with criminal drug charges from the past—opportunities to get involved in the cannabis industry. 

Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, sponsored a cannabis legalization bill earlier this year and told NM Political Report that he will sponsor another version next year based on the work group’s recommendations. Martinez’s bill was eventually combined with a competing Senate bill that proposed state-run cannabis stores. Neither of those bills made it to the governor’s desk and there’s no guarantee another proposal will get any farther in the legislative process unchanged, Martinez said.   

“There’s 112 very unique voices in the legislature, so I’m sure as we go through that process improvements will be made,” he said. “We’ll see what we end up with, but two things I think are the foundation of this framework. One of them is protecting and enhancing the medical program and number two is having social equity as a driver for this legalization mechanism.”

But there are plenty of critics of the group’s recommendations and their concerns are not the typical ones often heard from those who oppose cannabis legalization. Some patients and at least one producer have issues with the framework that will likely become the next attempt. 

Willie Ford who runs Reynold Greenleaf & Associates, a medical cannabis consulting and management company, said he was “generally disappointed” in what the group came up with, namely because it’s very similar to Martinez’s previous bill, which failed to pass the Legislature.

“The last two bills have failed in the Senate Finance committee. I don’t see any way that this bill is going to make it further on,” Ford said. “I guess I expected a little more progressive thinking in how they were going to approach this.”

Josh McCurdy with the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients Advocate Alliance said the state should focus on making sure patients in rural areas have access to cannabis before branching out to recreational legalization. McCurdy lives in Ruidoso and said many dispensaries in his area have a hard time keeping up with demand. If cannabis is legalized without a fully functioning medical program, McCurdy said, heavy tourist areas like Ruidoso will have more trouble keeping up with demand. 

“It just makes sense,” he said. “If we go to recreational we have to start looking at all the people in Midland, Odessa, Lubbock, Juarez, El Paso and my little redneck area of southern New Mexico.”

The group’s proposal includes a recommendation to require recreational cannabis companies to also provide medical cannabis. 

Other advocates saw the group’s recommendations as a win.  

Emily Kaltenbach, the state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, issued a statement that said her group was happy the recommendations included opportunities for New Mexico businesses in the cannabis industry, allowing those with prior controlled substance convictions to work in the industry and dedicating parts of the revenue to other statewide programs. 

“Having worked towards cannabis legalization in New Mexico for the better part of the last decade, we are grateful the governor’s office involved us in this process by inviting us to be a part of the working group,” Kaltenbach said. “We are excited by the opportunity to help shape New Mexico’s policies as it looks to become the 12th state in the country to legalize and regulate cannabis.”

Pat Davis, an Albuquerque city councilor and chair of the group, said the recommendations were just a guide .   

“I think a road map is a really good way to describe it because it’s a road map and the first stop on the map is the Legislature, but beyond that it also looks ahead to regulatory rules,” Davis said. “It’s not just a guide to write a bill, but it’s a road map for an entire structure.”

Davis said one of the group’s main goals was to develop a plan for the state to legalize recreational cannabis while maintaining a robust medical program. He pointed to the recommendations to require recreational-use dispensaries to prioritize medical cannabis over recreational use cannabis as an example. For instance, he said, if a dispensary were to run low on cannabis, it would have to serve patients first. 

Throughout the work group’s meetings over the past several weeks, some patients also raised concerns about the ability to home-grow cannabis in a post-legalization world. All but four members of the work group voted to only allow medical cannabis patients to grow their own. But the group’s recommendations included reduced penalties for growing cannabis without a proper license. 

The groups suggestions are only the beginning though. A bill still needs to be drafted and can’t be formally filed until at least December. Davis said members of the work group are scheduled to meet with interim legislative committees next month.