February 2, 2021

Competing recreational cannabis bills introduced

Photo Credit: ChelseyHerba Flickr via Compfight cc

Two state senators on opposite sides of the political aisle introduced competing bills Monday to legalize recreational marijuana in New Mexico.

A third proposal, also filed Monday, is expected to be formally introduced Tuesday in the House of Representatives, and other bills could be forthcoming.

The push to legalize cannabis for recreational adult use comes after previous efforts failed under a more conservative group of New Mexico lawmakers.

It also comes as the state government seeks to diversify its revenue sources to reduce its heavy reliance on oil and gas.

But the two senators who introduced the first cannabis legalization bills of this year’s 60-day legislative session, and the state director of the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, said generating revenue shouldn’t be the driving force.

“We should not legalize just to stand up a new industry,” said Emily Kaltenbach of the Drug Policy Alliance. “We need to legalize to right the harm of cannabis prohibition and the harm that this has done to our communities in New Mexico.”

The first piece of legislation introduced Monday came from Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat.

Ivey-Soto said Senate Bill 13 would leave New Mexico’s medical marijuana program intact and create a Cannabis Regulatory Office in the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department to oversee the program.

“If it’s adult use, we’re talking straight-up, nonjudgmental regulation,” he said.

Ivey-Soto said the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce had “a lot of influence” and input on his bill.

“They’ve been in this industry, and they’ve learned a lot already, so that was a good place to take a fair amount of inspiration from,” he said. “But it’s not just about the adult use. It’s how we transition from one to the other [medical to recreational] and how we maintain the duality of the two programs and a proper regulatory environment that also protects children in the process.”

Ivey-Soto said his bill calls for a taxation rate of 21 percent, with cities, counties and the state each receiving a one-third share.

Senate Bill 288, introduced by Sen. Cliff Pirtle, a Republican from Roswell, calls for a taxation rate between 13 percent and 15 percent, depending on the tax rate in each jurisdiction. His proposal calls for cities and counties to each receive 4 percent, with the remainder going to the state.

“If you get your tax rate too high, it causes the cannabis to be too expensive and allows for the black market cannabis industry to thrive,” said Pirtle, who introduced a cannabis legalization bill two years ago. “It was important to me to have a low tax rate so that we can put the black market cannabis industry out of business.”

Ivey-Soto said he had the same intent. He also said his bill doesn’t include “a lot of earmarking of funds” because it’s not intended to be a money-maker for government.

“This bill is about is about freeing up law enforcement to do their job with regard to them being able to focus on more violent crimes and … for us to free up the court system and for adults who choose to engage in the responsible use of cannabis to be able to do so without having to fear some kind of legal retribution at the state level,” he said. “That’s my focus. If there’s some tax dollars that flow in as a result, so be it. We’ll accept those and put those to good use.”

Pirtle said the legalization of recreational marijuana is an issue that crosses the political spectrum.

“I would think that the majority of New Mexicans, regardless of political affiliation, agree that the prohibition on cannabis has failed,” he said. “We have to find a way that we can regulate it and ensure public safety, ensuring that children aren’t getting ahold of it. The way that we’ve been doing it is not working, and we need to look for a different, better way.”

Pirtle’s legislation would create a new state agency, the Cannabis Control Commission, to oversee the program. Dispensaries would have to be at least a mile apart, he said.

Pirtle said legalization of recreational marijuana, which Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, has included in her legislative agenda, is on the horizon in New Mexico.

“It’s been my belief that if you’re not hurting anyone else, you’re not showing up to work [inebriated], you’re not posing to be a threat to other people, that the use of marijuana in someone’s private home is their business,” he said. “So as long as we ensure that businesses can maintain a drug-free, no-tolerance workforce and people are not using it in public and those types of things, I think it’s something that I can support.”

Lawmakers are expected to have several pieces of marijuana legislation to consider this year.

“At this moment, there are at least three or four other proposals that will be introduced,” Ivey-Soto said. “At the end of it all, we’re going to figure out how to pass one. That means that none of these bills is going to make it through without amendments and without collaboration with other people.”

Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, who filed a House bill Monday, wrote in a recent op-ed published in The New Mexican that “economic diversification will be one of our top priorities” of this year’s legislative session.

The House version of Ivey-Soto’s proposal is also expected to be filed Tuesday, said Ben Lewinger, executive director of the state’s Cannabis Chamber of Commerce.

Kaltenbach said Martínez’s bill includes the “comprehensive social justice and equity provisions that are necessary to right the wrongs of the failed war on drugs.”

“Whatever bill gets to the governor’s desk, we are going to be advocating for the inclusion of of equity,” she said. 

“We need to make sure that people who have prior convictions can work in the industry or be licensed. We need to make sure that people who have prior convictions have those convictions automatically expunged,” Kaltenbach said. “We need to make sure that [a portion of] revenue is reinvested back into communities that have been harmed by failed prohibition policies.

“We need to make sure that there are protections in there for youth so that no children get taken away from their families based on the sole reason of cannabis use,” she added. “Those are the kinds of things that we need to make sure are included in the bill.”

Staff writer Robert Nott contributed to this report.