February 13, 2020

Cannabis legalization stalls in committee

A recreational cannabis legalization bill stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, while a bill that would limit who can become a medical cannabis patient moved on. Both bills are sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, who has pushed for legalization in various ways for a number of years. 

Ortiz y Pino’s legalization bill, SB 115, by far received the most debate and criticism, particularly from the committee’s chairman Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces. Cervantes, who has long pushed for decriminalization, but has said he does not favor full legalization, said he was more concerned with problematic language in the almost 200-page bill. He spent more than 30 minutes going through some of his concerns, one of which was fairness. 

“This bill reflects one of the weaknesses in this state which is the propensity to pick winners and losers,” Cervantes said. 

He meticulously picked apart the bill and cited provisions that he said seemed unfair like a section that aims to include organized labor in cannabis production companies and a section that would create a subsidy program for indigent medical cannabis patients. Cervantes also said he didn’t like that the bill would allow those with previous drug convictions to get into the industry, even invoking the name of infamous drug lord El Chapo. 

The bill was tabled on a 6-3 vote. The bill can still be revived, but only by a committee member who voted in favor of tabling the bill. 

Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Española, said he voted to table it because he did not see or hear about any provisions in the bill that would address alcohol and opioid addiction. 

But Cervantes’ deep dive into the bill prompted another member to share her frustration with the committee process. 

Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, said she was embarrassed that the committee spent a little more than an hour criticizing the bill Ortiz y Pino and his expert witnesses spent months on.  

“I just want to apologize,” Stewart said. “I think it’s insulting and I want to apologize for the process. I don’t like what we’ve done here tonight.” 

Stewart voted against tabling the bill.

Now Ortiz y Pino will have to consider the committee’s suggestions and try to revive the bill, before this year’s legislative session ends on Feb. 20. The bill will still need to be heard by the Senate Finance Committee. No other legalization attempt has made it past that committee. 

In a statement, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she is optimistic about the bill’s future. 

“I am disappointed but not deterred by tonight’s committee motion,” she wrote. “The door remains open. We will keep working to get it done.”    

Medical marijuana for residents only passes

But the night was not a complete loss for Ortiz y Pino. His SB 139, which would limit medical cannabis cards to only state residents, easily passed with a 8-3 vote. Although those three dissenting votes were the result of an unexpected alliance among committee members. Stewart, along with Republican Senators Greg Baca of Belen and Mark Moores of Albuquerque voted against the bill. 

The issue of whether non-residents get to enroll in the state’s medical cannabis program goes back to a petition filed by three out of state residents, one of which is the head of a New Mexico medical cannabis producer, that argued the law does not limit enrollment to just residents. A judge ruled in favor of the three petitioners, but then the state took the issue to the court of appeals, where it is now pending. The petition was one result of a bill Ortiz y Pino sponsored last year that made major changes to the state’s medical cannabis law. He repeated to the Senate Judiciary Committee what he has previously told NM Political Report — that a definition change for what a qualified patient is was due to an oversight in an attempt to establish reciprocity with other medical cannabis states. 

Secretary of Health Katheyleen Kunkel served as Ortiz y Pino’s expert witness and said she’s concerned that the state may invite federal scrutiny if it continues to give out cards to out-of-staters. According to Kunkel, there are about 600 out of state patients enrolled in New Mexico’s program. 

Still, Stewart bluntly asked why he wants to change the language.

“I just don’t see why we would do this,” she said. “OK so the Texas police are going to arrest people that’s not our problem.  I don’t see why we would limit it to New Mexicans. 

Baca agreed. 

“I don’t see how it’s incumbent on our state to bear that responsibility,” Baca said. 

During both Wednesday night’s hearing and the previous one, Kunkel stressed that she is worried New Mexico could be seen as giving permission to cross state lines with cannabis, which is still a federal offense. 

Moores was also blunt in his comment, saying someone “would have to be stoned” to not know it’s illegal to cross state lines with cannabis. 

The bill heads to the Senate floor next.