February 21, 2020

Small wins for cannabis in 2020 legislative session

Cannabis legislation was not a complete loss for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during this year’s legislative session, but it was far from a complete win. Despite almost a year of work from a group assembled by Lujan Grisham to come up with proposed legislation for cannabis legalization, the proposal she backed failed early on in the session. The only Lujan Grisham-backed proposal that made it to her desk is a bill that would limit enrollment in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program to New Mexico residents. 

During a press conference after the Legislature adjourned on Thursday, Lujan Grisham said she will keep pushing for a safe and comprehensive legalization measure, even if it means changing the state constitution. New Mexico law does not allow for voter initiatives, which is how most states, including Colorado, legalized cannabis. The only way to change law through an election question is to propose a constitutional amendment, and Lujan Grisham said that’s not off the table. 

“I’m open to any number of pathways,” Lujan Grisham told reporters. 

New Mexicans only

SB 139, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, was promoted as a fix to legislation that was passed into law last year. In 2019, Lujan Grisham signed a bill that made sweeping changes to the state’s medical cannabis law. Last year’s bill included a change to the definition of “qualified patient” that removed the words “New Mexico resident” and replaced the two words with “person.” The change led to a legal challenge from the president and CEO of a medical cannabis producer who is a resident of Arizona, along with two Texas residents. A state judge ruled that the law required the state’s Department of Health to issue cards to anyone with a qualified condition regardless of where they live. Lujan Grisham and the DOH appealed the court’s decision but the appeal was never heard by the court. 

Only a handful of legislators opposed the bill, mostly questioning whether issuing medical cannabis patient cards to residents of neighboring states was a problem that needed to be addressed. 

Throughout testimony and debate, Secretary of Health Kathyleen Kunkel told lawmakers that she was concerned the federal government would intervene if New Mexico continued to issue cards to non-residents. There are currently more than 600 medical cannabis patients enrolled in the program who are not New Mexico residents. 

Lujan Grisham wasted no time in signing the legislation, signing it just hours after the Legislature adjourned. Because the bill has an emergency clause, the law went into effect immediately.

Still illegal 

SB 115, also sponsored by Ortiz y Pino, aimed at legalizing recreational use cannabis failed in its second Senate committee. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, picked apart the bill, criticising provisions that would allow those with previous drug charges an opportunity to get into the legal cannabis industry, a subsidy program for indigent cannabis patients and mandatory labor union involvement. 

The almost 200-page bill included provisions to automatically expunge previous cannabis convictions, but would have also made it illegal to grow cannabis without a production license or a patient home-grow license. Possessing up to three mature plants would have resulted in a $50 fine, whereas more than three mature plants would have been a fourth-degree felony, which comes with a mandatory 18 months in jail. 

No research or tribal programs

HB 334, sponsored by Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, would have created a way for research facilities to grow, buy or sell cannabis for studies. Currently, researchers must receive federal approval to do research on cannabis and can only buy plants from a federally sanctioned organization. 

A proposal to allow tribal groups to come up with their own medical cannabis program also failed to make it to the governor’s desk this year. SB 271 would have allowed the state’s DOH and tribal groups to enter into intergovernmental agreements as a way for willing tribes to start their own program without federal government interference. The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo, said the Picuris Pueblo tried to start their own medical cannabis program but was ultimately shut down by the U.S. Department of Justice. Shendo’s bill stalled on the House floor, never getting a vote. 

During Thursday’s press conference, Lujan Grisham said she was committed to pushing for similar legislation next year in order to ensure equality. 

“We want to make sure we aren’t discriminating and that we’re clear about sovereign nations and their opportunity to participate in every economic development,” Lujan Grisham said.  

Clean-up bills also failed

Two bills aimed at clarifying or cleaning up existing statutes also never made it to the governor’s desk. 

HB 214, sponsored by Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, would have added to a hemp bill Lente sponsored last year. This year’s legislation would have specified that any finished hemp products imported to New Mexico must abide by the same legal standards as hemp products manufactured in the state. 

SB 276, sponsored by Albuquerque Senate Democrats Jerry Ortiz y Pino and Antoinette Sedillo Lopez would have tightened language in the state law that allows school children to use medical cannabis in schools. Last year the governor signed a bill that allows medical cannabis in schools, but left much discretion to individual school districts. Since then, parents and school districts have battled over the law. Districts have said they can’t make staff administer a federally illegal drug, while parents argued they could not always show up to their respective children’s schools to administer their medicine.