Governor, legislators speak about end of session

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and legislators spoke about legislative successes and what they expect to happen with bills that didn’t cross the finish line, including a pending special session to pass recreational cannabis. 

Lujan Grisham said she was proud of how much work was done in a session marred by a pandemic. 

“It’s incredibly difficult and challenging, to debate, to draft, to engage in policy making,” she said. “It’s everything from economic relief, education and health care in an environment where you absolutely have to meet the COVID safe practices.”

Particularly, Lujan Grisham praised lawmakers for passing a liquor law reform, approving a proposed constitutional amendment to use state funds to pay for early childhood education and decriminalizing abortion.   

Democratic House of Representatives leadership held a press conference a few minutes after adjourning sine die on the House chamber floor to discuss Democratic accomplishments for this session. Speaker of the House Brian Egolf, of Santa Fe, said the focus for this session was recovery. 

The three-pronged approach to recovery, Egolf said, was education, health and the economy. Of the more than 170 pieces of legislation that passed this year, some of the bills highlighted during the press conference included passage of SB 10, the Respect New Mexico Women and Families Act, which repealed the 1969 statute banning abortion, as well as HB 4 the New Mexico Civil Rights Act, which ends qualified immunity as a legal defense in the state and allows for financial remedy up to $2 million and the potential to recover attorney’s fees if a person’s constitutional rights have been violated. Lujan Grisham signed SB 10 into law in February.

Cannabis legalization runs out of time, governor will call for a special session

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham confirmed on Saturday that she plans to call a special legislative session aimed at fully legalizing cannabis and said it will begin “on or about” March 31. 

In a post-legislative session press conference, Lujan Grisham said the work lawmakers did to try and come up with an agreeable cannabis legalization proposal can serve as a good starting point during the special session. 

“If you look at all of the brokering of efforts to bring two sides of the issue together, and it happened over and over again, we have an incredible framework ready to go for adult use cannabis,” Lujan Grisham said. 

The governor’s announcement comes on the heels of a 60-day session that failed to send a cannabis legalization bill to Lujan Grisham’s desk. But the outlook for cannabis legalization during the last few days of the session was a stark contrast from the optimism just weeks earlier. About a week before lawmakers were set to adjourn, legalization seemed like it was going to stall in the Senate Judiciary Committee. But HB 12, sponsored by Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, ultimately made its way out of that committee, albeit with less than 72 hours before the end of the session and a warning from Chairman Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces. 

“There are a number of things in the bill that should be of great concern to you that, frankly, in many cases, are just contrary to law, existing law,” Cervantes said. “And I don’t think you want to do that.”

More specifically, Cervantes said the bill would unintentionally give parents the ability to give their children cannabis and that wording regarding personal possession limits was opposite of what the sponsors intended.

House-backed cannabis legalization bill heads to Senate Floor

After a series of successful and attempted amendments and three hours of debate, a House-backed legalization effort passed its last Senate committee by a 5-4 vote and is now headed to the chamber’s floor. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee debate started Wednesday night and ended early Thursday morning, though Chairman Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, reiterated his belief that HB 12 was still not ready for the Senate floor. 

HB 12, sponsored by Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, went through a number of changes that include prohibiting cannabis producers from stacking licenses, an adjustment to how production is monitored and limited, a prohibition on cannabis producers testing their own products for potency and contaminants, and a change to how the cannabis excise tax would be structured.  

But even after an extensive debate and detailed amendments, Cervantes said the bill was riddled with errors and ambiguity. 

After Cervantes went through each section and pointed out numerous instances that he said would be problematic, Romero said she and Martínez would be willing to go through them and make changes during the meeting. But Cervantes said making those changes would take too long. 

“There are a number of things in the bill that should be of great concern to you that, frankly in many cases, are just contrary to law,” Cervantes said. Cervantes voted, along with the three Republican committee members, against the measure 

Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, who sponsored a legalization attempt in 2019 agreed that the bill was not ready and called the current version “half-baked.” Moores criticized proponents of the bill for not working with him to come up with an agreeable bill. 

“My phone has been silent from the advocates on this for three years now,” Moores said. “It doesn’t seem like they wanted to get it right and there were agendas there.” 

Senate Minority Floor Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, praised the committee for meticulously going through the bill, but said there were still “glaring issues.”

Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, did not offer any comments on the final bill that passed the committee, but he also sponsored a legalization bill this year. His bill, though, would still need to pass another Senate committee and the Senate floor before going through the process again in the House.

Gov. Lujan Grisham signs liquor law change

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday signed into law what evolved into a sweeping change of state liquor laws. 

HB 255, sponsored by Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, was originally intended to allow alcohol deliveries and add a new type of liquor dispensing license. But through a series of amendments on the Senate floor, the law now bans miniature liquor bottles, broadens the hours when liquor can be sold and allows for a ban of liquor sales at gas stations and convenience stores in McKinley County. 

The bill proved controversial among many liquor license holders early on in the legislative process. Those existing license holders repeatedly argued that adding a new type of liquor license would devalue current licenses. For decades, New Mexico limited the number of liquor dispensing licenses which resulted in licenses being sold for upwards of half a million dollars. Many restaurant and bar owners said they used their licenses as collateral for loans. 

But instead of issuing more dispensing licenses, the new law actually creates a new class of liquor licenses for restaurants that requires a certain amount of food to be sold and those who obtain the new class of license cannot sell any more than three drinks, containing one and a half ounces of hard alcohol. 

Lujan Grisham, in a statement on Wednesday said the passage of the bill was the result of “productive and creating problem-solving” by lawmakers. 

“Like any bipartisan compromise, at the end of the day, most if not all will feel both that they got some of what they wanted and had to give some of what they didn’t,” Lujan Grisham said. 

During committee hearings many current license holders implied that the state could face lawsuits calling for state reimbursement to make up for a devalued license.

Limitations on medical cannabis reciprocity heads to House floor

While two efforts to legalize and regulate recreational-use cannabis are coming down to the wire, legislation aimed at limiting medical cannabis reciprocity appears to be on a fast track to the governor’s desk. 

SB 340, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, passed the House Judiciary Committee unanimously on Wednesday.  

Ortiz y Pino, joined by New Mexico Department of Health officials, argued that the integrity of the state’s Medical Cannabis Program is at risk unless the law is changed to limit who can qualify as a reciprocal medical cannabis patient. 

“Our reciprocity arrangement has been taken advantage of by people who are using the internet to secure letters, not licenses, but letters from physicians in a third state,” Ortiz y Pino said. “California is the most likely, but it could be anywhere that they have loose medical cannabis programs.”

Aryan Showers with the Department of Health served as one of Ortiz y Pino’s expert witnesses and told the committee that medical cannabis reciprocity was intended to give medical cannabis patients enrolled in a “bonafide state program” the opportunity to buy, possess and consume medical cannabis in New Mexico. Instead, Showers said, there is currently a “loophole” that allows people to “circumvent the enrollment requirements” of New Mexico’s program. 

“We didn’t foresee this loophole, but it’s causing the program significant strain,” Showers said. “And we’re actually just concerned about the potential impact this could have on those New Mexicans who truly depend on the program for their medicine.”

There was no debate among committee members and only two members made supportive comments about the bill. 

Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, jokingly asked Ortiz y Pino where to find a $30 medical cannabis card. 

“I think there are places on the internet where you can get one very quickly,” Ortiz y Pino answered. “There’s only a five minute interview with a physician in California who has a very broad understanding of how medical cannabis can be used.”

This is the second consecutive year that Ortiz y Pino sponsored a bill to amend a law he helped pass in 2019 that made broad changes to the state’s medical cannabis statute.

Senate Judiciary Chair awaiting changes to cannabis legalization bill

The chairman of a New Mexico Senate committee that is key to getting a House-backed cannabis legalization effort to the Senate floor said he is still waiting on expected changes before scheduling a hearing. 

Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Joseph Cervantes said he was told by Senate leadership that HB 12, a bill sponsored by Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, was undergoing changes before its final committee before the Senate floor. 

“I haven’t even heard from the bill sponsor,” Cervantes, a Democrat from Las Cruces, said. “My understanding is there’s a Senate Judiciary Committee sub that is in the works. That’s the only thing I’ve been told.”

A spokesman for the Senate Democratic leadership confirmed that Cervantes was indeed told there are changes being made to the bill. 

Martínez did not respond to an inquiry about what parts of his bill are being changed. And while legalization proponents may be anxiously wondering if there is still enough time in the last days of the session to get a cannabis legalization bill to the governor’s desk before the session ends on Saturday at noon, Cervantes said the bigger concern should be whether changes to the bill will be approved by the Judiciary Committee. 

“The issue will be the caliber of the bill as it gets amended,” Cervantes said. “The bill in its present form is not ready to become a law.”

Cervantes did not specify which parts of the bill he thinks should be changed or how.

Senate approves effort to clarify medical cannabis reciprocity

The New Mexico Senate approved on Monday a bill that would more narrowly define medical cannabis reciprocity by a 28-10 vote. 

Sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, SB 340 would specify that reciprocal cannabis patients in New Mexico cannot be a local resident and that reciprocal patients must reside in the state where they are approved by a medical professional to use medical cannabis. Ortiz y Pino said since New Mexico began honoring reciprocity with other states that have legalized medical cannabis, a number of people from Texas started obtaining authorization to use medical cannabis in California and then using that authorization in New Mexico as reciprocal patients. 

“This is a bill that is an effort at preventing some of the abuses that have begun creeping into our medical cannabis program in the state,” Ortiz y Pino said. 

While most of the comments from Senators were in support of the bill, Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, who has also served as legal counsel for the medical cannabis producer Ultra Health, took issue with the proposal. 

Candelaria, who has also been open about being a medical cannabis patient, shared his struggles with PTSD as a victim of rape when he was a child. Candelaria also said he took issue with comments from Senate Republicans inferring that many of the 108,000 patients in New Mexico are using the state’s medical cannabis program as de facto legalization. 

“I encourage us to stop making assumptions about people’s motives,” Candelaria said. 

Candelaria also unsuccessfully offered up an amendment to the bill that would have increased the amount of cannabis qualified patients can buy each day. Currently, Department of Health rules allow patients to purchase 230 units in a rolling 90-day period. The department defines a unit as one gram of flower or bud or 250 milligrams of concentrate.

Medical cannabis reciprocity bill heads to the Senate floor

A state Senate committee narrowly advanced a bill Sunday that would prevent New Mexico residents from becoming reciprocal cannabis patients by a 3-2 vote. 

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, the sponsor of SB 340, said the law change is necessary to ensure integrity of the state’s Medical Cannabis Program. He said current patients could suffer if New Mexicans who do not qualify for medical cannabis bypass the system and qualify through a state like California, which is more lax with medical cannabis qualifications and residency requirements. 

“If we loosen the door this way, and let our medical program be slowly deteriorated and reduce in its effectiveness, those people are going to be left on the outside looking in,” Ortiz y Pino said. 

Committee member and Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, was one of the two members who voted against the bill. Stewart questioned what purpose the bill serves with the possibility of full cannabis legalization on the horizon. 

“We’re about to legalize adult-use cannabis, hopefully. Maybe. We’ve only got six days,” Stewart said.

House committee advances proposal to alter legislative session lengths

The New Mexico House Judiciary Committee advanced on Saturday a proposal to change a fundamental piece of how the state Legislature operates, although some committee members signaled that it will likely die before Saturday when the session ends. 

House Joint Resolution 13, is a bipartisan proposal that aims to change the dates and length of legislative sessions through a constitutional amendment. 

House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, is the lead sponsor of the proposal, but 20 other legislators have also signed on to the resolution. 

Montoya said there’s a need to revamp how and when the Legislature meets because the current system doesn’t work for the minority party during budget sessions. Montoya used former Gov. Susana Martinez as an example and said half of that time was devoted to budgetary issues or issues the governor saw fit to address. 

“Many of you that are here, were under eight years of the [Susana] Martinez administration,” Montoya said. “For four years, unless somehow you snuck something in, you didn’t get a bill introduced during four of those eight years.”

Currently, the state constitution dictates that on even-numbered years the Legislature is required to meet for 30 days and can only take up financial issues and anything the governor adds to “the call.” Odd-numbered years are required to be 60 days and there is no restriction on what type of proposals can be introduced. 

HJR 13, if approved by voters, would change the constitution to require that the Legislature meet for 45 days every year and would eliminate the constraints on bills that could be considered in even-numbered years 

Nearly all members of the Judiciary Committee voiced their concern with the current system, but some said they thought 45 days still is not long enough to effectively legislate. 

Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, said he considered sponsoring a similar proposal, but ultimately decided against it after he saw new rules imposed in the House this year, a largely virtual session, that limited the number of bills introduced as well as morning floor sessions that have historically been devoted to pomp and circumstance. 

“I don’t know what college someone’s intern wants to go to or what their favorite sport is, and things like that,” McQueen said. I appreciate the process of the legislature, but we spend way too much time on that stuff. Way too much time.”

McQueen was one of two committee members who voted against the resolution, but explained that he thinks 45 days is still “too limiting.”

House Judiciary Committee Chair Gail Chasey, D-Albuquerque, along with Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque both agreed that 45 days is not enough time to get through hundreds of pieces of legislation.

Liquor law overhaul heads to governor

After extensive changes through a series of amendments, the New Mexico Senate on Tuesday approved a bill aimed at allowing alcohol delivery and making other significant changes to the state’s liquor laws by a 29-11 vote. 

Shortly after the Senate passed HB 255, the House voted to concur with the changes made in the Senate, which means the bill now heads to the governor’s desk. 

Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, presented the bill on behalf of the House sponsor, Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque. 

Throughout the hours-long debate and amendment process, Ivey-Soto said the bill was one way for New Mexico to change its “relationship with alcohol.” 

“This has been a long time coming,” Ivey-Soto said just before the vote. “It’s been 40 years coming for us to have this discussion. It’s been 40 years coming for people to be able to say, ‘You know, here’s something that’s affected my constituents. Here’s something that I’ve wanted to do something about. Here’s something where we can make a change.”

Besides allowing for alcohol deliveries, the original intention of the bill was to fix a decades-old system that inadvertently put an inflated monetary value on licenses to sell liquor by the drink.