January 21, 2021

Multiple cannabis legalization bills expected during the NM Legislative session

Photo Credit: ChelseyHerba Flickr via Compfight cc

New Mexico’s 2021 legislative session will surely be marked with debates over education issues, state finances and abortion rights. But the Legislature is also set to weigh the pros and cons of recreational-use cannabis. In recent years,  generally speaking, Democrats have pushed for legalization while Republicans have opposed it. This year, though, Democratic lawmakers expect to see multiple legalization bills, with some technical differences. 

Senate leadership, along with at least two expected sponsors of legalization proposals, told NM Political Report that the goal this year is collaboration and to avoid bogging down the process. 

In the House, all eyes are on Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque. 

Martínez has sponsored a bill aimed at legalization nearly every year he’s been in office. His 2019 attempt arguably saw the most progress. It was a comprehensive bill that addressed a number of things like protecting the state’s current medical cannabis supply and included specific tax earmarks. That bill was eventually combined with a proposal from some Senate Republicans, but it still never made it past the Senate Finance Committee, which was notorious for years for being one of the toughest panels for progressive legislation. Up until this year, the Senate Finance Committee was led by conservative Democrat John Arthur Smith, who lost in the Democratic primary last year. 

By 2020, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham made it abundantly clear that she wanted to see statewide, legalized cannabis by placing the issue on the call during that year’s legislative session. That meant allowing lawmakers to take on the issue in a session where only budget items and items approved by the governor can be discussed. 

The strategy among proponents that year was to focus on an identical Senate version of Martínez’s bill since that was where the bottleneck was the year before. Still, the attempt failed and the 2020 version never saw a floor debate or vote.

Martínez told NM Political Report that his proposal this year will mostly look like previous attempts, with some changes regarding where to put tax revenue collected from cannabis sales. He said he’s the first to admit he made a mistake in prior attempts by trying to direct tax revenue to specific departments. This year, he said, the only two earmarks he’ll include in his bill are for a medical cannabis subsidy program for patients who struggle to afford medical cannabis prices and for a program that Martínez said would help underrepresented communities get a seat at the proverbial cannabis industry table.  

“I take the position that we have to be very careful when earmarking tax revenues,” Martínez said. “It ties the hands of the appropriators, it ties the hands of the Legislature and it doesn’t allow us to evolve our appropriation strategies with the times because it’s set in statute. So our bill will be very limited with regard to earmarks.”

Martínez said he’s open to debates and would be willing to compromise on some specifics of his yet to be filed bill, but that he’s not ready to give up on issues that are important to him like expunging records for those who were convicted of nonviolent cannabis offenses under previous laws and making sure a future legal cannabis industry is equitable. 

“I believe that you can’t do legalization unless you make right by the people who have been most harmed by the war on drugs,” Martinez said. “So that means criminal justice reforms, that means ensuring equity and diversity in the licensing process, that means reinvesting the revenues generated by this industry and those communities. I think as long as those basic tenants are met by any legalization bill that might pop up, I think we’re in good shape.”

Breaking points

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, told NM Political Report that he also plans on sponsoring a cannabis legalization bill and said his motivation for getting a bill passed and to the governor’s desk is to simply stay on par with Colorado, which fully legalized cannabis years ago, and Arizona, where voters approved legalized cannabis last year. Ivey-Soto said if New Mexico does not legalize cannabis this year, it risks being left behind. 

“I don’t like us being last,” Ivey-Soto said. 

And while there are no bills to compare yet, Ivey-Soto and Martínez both seem to have similar thoughts on the importance of expunging records of those who were convicted under previous laws that criminalized the possession of cannabis. For context, in the past several years, New Mexico has both decriminalized the possession of small amounts of cannabis and created a criminal expungement process. But, to expunge someone’s record, a person must file a petition with a state court, which, in most cases, requires hiring a lawyer. That process, Ivey-Soto said, is broken and any expungement provision in a legalization bill shouldn’t put an extra burden on the person seeking to clear their record. 

“That really upsets me greatly,” Ivey-Soto said of the idea of putting the onus on the convicted person. “My perspective on it, and what I plan to bring in, is that we give a directive to the Administrative Office of the Courts to go find the convictions for that which we are decriminalizing and to remove those convictions by act of the Legislature.”

Like Martínez, Ivey-Soto said he thinks tax revenue from hypothetical cannabis sales should go to the state’s general fund instead of being directed to specific programs or departments. But where Martínez wants to direct at least some of that revenue directly to a cannabis patient subsidy program, Ivey-Soto thinks there is a “better, market-based solution” for assisting low-income medical cannabis patients than the state directly paying for it. 

“The concern is well placed, the solution is not,” he said. “The solution to that concern, which I have supported, is that each [cannabis] producer needs to set aside, for the privilege of doing adult-use sales, at least 5 percent of their supply for low income, medical use people.”

In 2019, Lujan Grisham convened a working group to come up with a proposal for legalization. One thing that group discussed was setting aside a portion of tax revenue from cannabis sales for law enforcement. 

Ivey-Soto said he won’t include any earmarks, even for law enforcement, in his bill.

Besides Ivey-Soto and Martínez, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, has hinted he would sponsor a legalization bill. Like Ivey-Soto and Martínez, Candelaria has said a legalization bill without restorative measures would be a dealbreaker for him. The New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce has already floated a proposal absent of such restorative justice measures. 

These aren’t the only challengers. Some lawmakers will likely push back on the idea that it should be done at all. There’s also a chance some Republicans may introduce their own version of a legalization bill as they did in 2019. 

The expected list of differing bills aimed at legalization, combined with expected opposition could create the impression that legalization is doomed to fail. But Senate leadership, along with some of the expected sponsors, say they’re more than ready and willing to work through philosophically different opinions in order to get a legalization bill to Lujan Grisham’s desk. 

Coming to an agreement

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, who is also a lawyer, said he plans to take a page from his day job and serve as a mediator between Senate Democrats if needed, but otherwise said he plans on leaving the fine-tuning to the experts.  

“In my position, one of the challenges is how far into the weeds I go,” Wirth said. “I kind of see my role as elevating and making sure that I’m having more of a big picture discussion, letting the various advocates and sponsors kind of work on those issues, and then at the right moment, stepping in.”

Wirth said he also puts priority on social and restorative justice issues and that he hopes proponents of legalization can come to an agreement that those issues are non-negotiable. 

“That’s a super important issue that I hope we can just kind of say, “Yes, we’re going to do it,” Wirth said. “And then we get into the nitty gritty of plant count, licenses, existing medical cannabis and making sure we don’t do anything to hurt the medical cannabis program. That’s very important to me.”

Both Ivey-Soto and Martínez seem to agree that to pass legalization this year, proponents will need to be willing to work towards a common general goal and also be willing to compromise on specifics. 

Martínez said he hasn’t seen any other bills, but that he hopes others will consider the impacts of previous drug laws on underrepresented communities. 

“In the past, it’s been one bill, and that’s the one that we’ve sort of beat the bushes with and advanced, and I think there are a lot more legislators now who can see this as a possibility,” Martínez said. “I think they want to pursue their own ideas, but we would be making a grave mistake if we legalize and we throw entire communities, communities of color particularly, under the cannabis bus.”

Ivey-Soto also said that while he’s got his caveats about what is included in a legalization bill and what is not, he doesn’t care if his expected proposal makes it to the governor’s desk. 

“I’m not the champion,” Ivey-Soto said. “I just want something that’s going to pass, whether it’s under my name or whether it’s an amendment into somebody else’s.”