February 28, 2021

Senate committee signals House cannabis legalization effort as the likely preferred option

Even after a nearly four hour Senate committee meeting on Saturday, none of the four cannabis legalization bills the panel discussed advanced. But with encouragement from the Senate majority leader and the committee’s chair, the sponsors said they work to come up with a unified approach before another meeting next week. 

It seems likely, based on comments from some committee members, that none of the Senate proposals will advance out of committee, but that portions of them will be incorporated into a House bill that has already advanced to the Senate. 

Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee Chair Benny Shendo, D-Jemez Pueblo announced at the beginning of the meeting that the committee would not take action on any of the bills. Instead, the committee heard public testimony and examined the differences between the bills. And in a somewhat unorthodox procedure, the committee discussed HB 12, which has not yet been assigned to any Senate committees. HB 12, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Javier Martínez of Albuquerque and Andrea Romero of Santa Fe, passed the House the night before without any Republicans voting for it and six Democrats voting against it. 

Senate Majority Floor Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, who is also a member of the committee said the best chance at passing a legalization bill is to pare down the number of bills. 

“My preference would be, and my hope and I’ve really sent the signal to those different parties, is try and figure out a way that we’ve got one bill, we can move forward,” Wirth said. 

He added that HB 12, having already passed a whole chamber, is the best bet for getting a legalization proposal to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk. 

“It’s already passed,” Wirth added. “Let’s do an amendment. Let’s shape that thing. Let’s see if we can’t get something that all the parties get on board with.”

But Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, criticized the plan, arguing that one of the three Senate bills being proposed would likely garner more support than HB 12. 

“It’s almost like we were sitting here waiting for the House bill to get here,” Brandt said. “We have some really great ideas. In fact, I think, better ideas on this side…There was no bipartisan support of that bill.”

Brandt was referring to SB 288, sponsored by Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell. Even though there was no vote, Republican committee members hinted that they might support Pirtle’s bill which includes more stringent proposals for things like limits on possession amounts and would allow municipalities and counties to opt out of legalization. In the House debate over HB 12 the night before, some Republicans pushed for an opt-out provision for counties and municipalities. 

Some proponents of cannabis legalization, namely the Drug Policy Alliance of New Mexico have warned that an opt-out option could create problems with dispersing potential tax revenue and enforcement. 

Ranking committee member Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, also encouraged the committee to consider Pirtle’s bill when they are working to come up with a cohesive bill. 

“I hope that when they come back on Saturday that I’m seeing some pieces of [SB] 288 in that bill,” Kernan said. “I don’t want to just merge one Senate bill with the House bill and say we’re done.”

The committee also considered SB 363, sponsored by Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque. SB 363 largely tracks with HB 12, but would also reduce penalties for simple possession of all drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor. Candelaria told the committee that he planned on working towards combining his bill with HB 12 in the name of expediency. 

“What my proposal will be, just so it’s clear to everybody, is that Senate Bill 363 is nearly merged into House Bill 12,” Candelaria said. “I have no pride of authorship here. I think the issue is finding the right place on these policy issues.”

Rep. Tara Lujan, D-Santa Fe, who presented SB 13 on behalf of sponsor Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, encouraged Candelaria to also consider SB 13. But Candelaria said he has issues with too many portions of Ivey-Soto’s bill. 

“I’m open to any ideas. I think the challenge is, with all due respect, many of the ideas that are presented in Senate Bill 13, I simply will not, cannot agree to, because I think they’re bad policy,” Candelaria said. “But is my door open to discuss where we can find common ground? Absolutely.” 

SB 13 is the Senate version of Lujan’s HB 17, which was tabled in a House committee earlier this month. Both bills are backed by the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce. 

Regardless of which bill advances out of the Tax, Business and Transportation Committee, after next Saturday there will be two weeks left in the session. While HB 12 has not received any committee assignments yet, all of the Senate bills have to pass the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Joseph Cervantes, who has been open about his opposition to fully legalize cannabis. In 2020, a similar proposal to HB 12 stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee after Cervantes criticized the length of the bill and its restorative justice and equity provisions.