February 27, 2021

House passes cannabis legalization effort, sends it to the Senate

A House proposal to legalize and regulate cannabis passed the chamber on a 39-31 vote, with six Democrats breaking rank to vote against the measure. 

HB 12, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Javier Martínez of Albuquerque and Andrea Romero of Santa Fe, would fully legalize the sale and production of cannabis for adults, allow home cultivation and would expunge previous minor drug convictions. The bill would also implement an eight percent excise tax on the sale of cannabis and a local government tax up to four percent. Recreational-use cannabis would also be subject to gross receipts taxes, while medical-use cannabis would not. 

Martínez said the three major tenets of the bill are to protect New Mexico’s current medical-use cannabis program, ensure an equitable and just industry and to create a regulated industry that will thrive. 

Romero told her colleagues she shared the sentiments of her cosponsor and said cannabis has been used for various purposes for centuries, including in her own family.    

Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo explained why he opposed the bill. He raised concerns about how a fully-legalized cannabis program might impact tribal governments in the state. The bill would allow New Mexico to enter into agreements with tribal governments, but Lente said he was concerned about the legal ramifications of tribal governments involving themselves with a still federally illegal substance. In 2018 the Picuris Pueblo was raided by federal agents after the pueblo tried to set up its own medical cannabis program. 

“I just worry that maybe there’s an unintended consequence,” Lente said. 

Martínez said the federal government has become more and more lax on the issue of cannabis and he expects that trend to continue. 

“What we’ve seen in the last couple of administrations, under a Democrat and a Republican, it seems sort of a hands off approach on these issues, for the most part,” Martínez said. “I know that there are examples, including the one you mentioned earlier. But I think that for the most part, they’ve taken a hands-off approach.”

Much of the three hour debate surrounded whether local governments should be able to opt-out of the proposed law. 

Rep. Randal Crowder, R-Clovis, offered up an amendment to the bill that would have allowed counties six months after the bill becomes law to opt out of legalized cannabis. Martinez said such a measure would create problems with enforcing the law.

Martínez said besides law enforcement issues, opting out of cannabis sales could create problems with adjacent cities and counties that share revenue.

“These are resources that will go into these communities to help pay for law enforcement, to help pay for social services, perhaps to go repair a pothole or two,” Martínez said. “It’s a revenue source that wasn’t there before. That’s not to say that it’s all rainbows and unicorns. As with any new industry, you’re going to have some growing pains.”

Crowder ultimately withdrew his amendment after Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, pointed out that the amendment would have driven out existing medical cannabis dispensaries. Crowder said that was not his intention. 

“I did not consider how this might affect the medical cannabis and I have no intention in this amendment to do that,” Crowder said

Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, brought a revised amendment that excluded medical cannabis sales, but the measure still failed. 

Montoya argued that there are already parts of the state where sales of certain products are barred, but possession is still legal. 

“The Navajo reservation is technically dry.” Montoya said. “The products of alcohol, liquor, spirits are not allowed to be sold on a reservation there in San Juan County and McKinley County, except at casinos,” Montoya said. 

HB 12 now goes to the Senate where it will be assigned committees. 

The Senate has three cannabis legalization proposals as well. The Senate Tax Business and Transportation Committee will consider those bills on Saturday. 

In 2019 another, similar bill sponsored by Martínez made it through the House but was never considered by the Senate Finance Committee before the session ended. In 2020 a Senate legalization bill only made it past one committee. This year, only one of the five legalization bills were assigned to the Senate Finance Committee.