Cannabis legalization looms large in session

The 2020 legislative session starts tomorrow and besides the standard 30-day budgetary issues, many eyes are on cannabis and whether this is the year it becomes legal to use recreationally. Last week, two lawmakers filed bills aimed doing just that. 

Rep. Javier Martinez and Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, both Albuquerque Democrats, are cosponsors of the Senate version of the Cannabis Regulation Act. Martinez is the sponsor of the House version of the bill. 

The bills are largely based on recommendations from a legalization work group and a legalization bill that failed to get to the governor’s desk last year. Both bills are 175 pages long and prescribe how recreational should be taxed, age limits for possessing or consuming cannabis and which state entities will be involved. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced last year that she would support a comprehensive legalization bill and added to “the call” this year. It is nearly unheard of for legislation to make it to the governor’s desk without some amendments, so these two bills will likely change in the next 30 days, but here are some key points of the bills. 

Possible heartburn

Various different lawmakers have tried to pass recreational legalization bills over the years, but 2019 marked the farthest in the process a proposal made it in recent history.

DOH set to finalize rules on cannabis consumption areas, new testing standards

New Mexico is one step closer to establishing sanctioned, legal areas for medical cannabis patients to use their medicine. 

The Department of Health’s Medical Cannabis Program held a public hearing Thursday to hear comments from the public regarding department rule changes. Those changes include higher testing standards for cannabis producers and manufacturers, reciprocity for medical cannabis patients already enrolled in a medical program in another state and consumption areas. 

Most comments from the public were about the testing standards, but some medical cannabis patients said they would like to see more leniency on who can open a consumption area and where they can open it. 

Erica Rowland, a founding member of the Albuquerque-based cannabis producer Seven Clover, said the opportunity to open a consumption area should not be limited to those who already produced the cannabis. 

“Consumption areas should not be limited to [Licensed Non Profit Producers],” Rowland said. 

But because the state’s cannabis law is specifically written and leaves little room for interpretation, the Legislature would need to act to change consumption area requirements. After changes made during the 2019 legislative session, the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act allows for consumption areas, but requires that they are owned and operated by a Licensed Non Profit Producer, effectively barring someone from starting a new business solely for cannabis consumption. 

The statute, not the proposed rule change, also requires that anyone consuming cannabis at a consumption area have a safe ride home. It’s still unclear who would be held liable for someone who leaves a consumption area and drives themselves. Medical Cannabis Program Director Dominick Zurlo said that is more of a legal question and out of the DOH’s purview. 

“One of the big issues of course is New Mexico is one of the states that has a huge issue with DUIs and we want to ensure people are able to get home safely,” Zurlo said.

Shifting, filling legislative spots before session starts

A legislative appointment from the Bernalillo County Commission Tuesday marked the last vacancy to be filled before the upcoming legislative session. County commissioners voted unanimously to appoint Democrat Marian Matthews to fill a vacant spot left by Democrat Rep. William Pratt after he died last month. 

Matthews, a former prosecutor and college educator, announced late last year that she planned to run for Pratt’s seat since Pratt announced he would not run for election. Pratt himself was appointed to the seat after former Rep. Larry Larrañaga died in 2018. Pratt then won the general election that November. Matthews told commissioners she would like to address Albuquerque’s crime rate. 

The special meeting was the first for newly appointed commissioner James Collie, a Democrat who was sworn in just before the meeting started.

Long-time incumbent and political newcomer emerge as winners in two ABQ council races

Two divisive Albuquerque city council district races were decided in a runoff election Tuesday night. Incumbent City Councilor Isaac Benton won his race in District 2, which includes the downtown and historic Barelas neighborhoods. Political newcomer Brook Bassan won her race against Ane Romero, who has never held a political office before, but ran for a state House seat in 2016. 

Benton told NM Political Report that his win shows that his constituency knows he’s not in it for the fame or fortune of the city council. “I’ve always just wanted to serve and I think quite a few people recognize that,” Benton said. 

Leading up to the election last month where Benton won the most votes, but failed to get more than 50 percent, accusations of dishonesty came from both sides. But it was a mailer from political group who supported Benton that caused the most controversy and division.

State job opportunities limited for medical cannabis patients

Earlier this year, New Mexico legislators and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham overhauled the state’s medical cannabis statute. Updates to the law ranged from relatively simple definition changes to more significant changes like allowing consumption areas for cannabis patients. 

But the parts of the law that are supposed to protect patients from losing their jobs solely for being a patient in the program may also be hindering the nearly 79,000 cannabis patients in New Mexico from getting a job with the state. That’s because the law also protects employers by giving them enough autonomy to fire or not hire a cannabis patient for safety concerns or if the employer could lose federal funding for hiring a cannabis user. 

Jason Barker is a medical cannabis patient advocate and a patient himself. He said he started looking at job descriptions after the state announced a three-day “rapid hire event”scheduled for next week and aimed at hiring hundreds of new employees. But, Barker said, many of the jobs he’s qualified for are considered safety sensitive, which would require a pre-employment drug test.

Who’s the threat? Hundreds of special ed students ID’d as potential threats

ALBUQUERQUE – Jamari Nelson likes action figures and video games – the “usual kid stuff,” as the 7-year-old put it. One of his favorite activities is making slime out of glue, laundry detergent, and other household chemicals. The kitchen cabinet is stocked with plastic baggies of his multicolored goop. “I sort of really recommend this one for stress and stuff,” he said, showing off a mustard-yellow slime the consistency of Silly Putty. He likes squeezing it, feeling it ooze between his fingers, stretching it until it becomes so thin that it melts.

A look at ABQ city council candidates

Saturday marks the start of expanded early voting in Albuquerque’s city council election. 

NM Political Report reached out to all of the candidates listed on the city clerk’s website and asked them all the same questions. Their answers were submitted over email and every candidate had about 48 hours to respond. 

District 2

District 2 is the most crowded of the four council races. Incumbent Isaac Benton is defending his seat against five other candidates. The district includes all of downtown, the historic Barelas and Martinez Town neighborhoods and creeps north almost to Los Ranchos de Albuquerque.  

Isaac Benton 

Name: Isaac Benton

Occupation: Full-time City Councilor, retired architect 

What should be the council’s number one priority for the city as a whole? Reducing crime should continue to be our top priority.  Today, we are rebuilding APD and for the first time in six years we have more than 1,000 officers, with 200 more slated by 2021.

Emergency hemp rules to expedite production

About 150 people gathered in an Expo New Mexico building in Albuquerque on Wednesday to hear about rules for manufacturing, storing and extracting hemp products that go into effect next week. 

The meeting was the third, and final, part of a series of meetings the New Mexico Environment Department held over two weeks. 

Unlike most public meetings held by state departments on proposed rules or rule changes, the public was not given a chance to give input or suggest changes. Instead it was purely informational. 

“This meeting is for us to explain what the rules will be for the next six months in the state of New Mexico,” Hemp Program Manager Johnathan Gerhardt told the crowd. 

That’s because there’s hemp almost ready to be harvested in the state before rules to outline permit requirements or guidelines on how to label, transport or store it exist. So the department implemented emergency rules and invited stakeholders to come and ask questions. The informational meeting blitz began on July 16 and the emergency rules official go into effect on Aug. 1. 

Environmental Health Bureau Chief Bill Chavez told NM Political Report the department didn’t have enough time to go through a traditional rulemaking process after the legislature passed and the governor signed an industrial hemp bill. 

“We found out after the bill was signed that there was already growing of hemp occuring and it was going to be ready to be harvested and manufactured into products as early as August or September,” Chavez said. 

Everyone in the crowd stuck to the ground rules and only asked questions instead of issuing speeches to make their point. 

Smaller farmers have concerns

But not everyone could attend. 

Hemp farmer Bob Boylan, whose farm is about 30 miles east of Albuquerque, said he was too busy tending his crops to attend the meeting.

Should the state increase regulation of homegrown medical cannabis?

During a New Mexico Department of Health public hearing earlier this month that allowed public input into proposed rule changes to the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, a major player in the industry raised concerns with some patients. 

Willie Ford, managing director of the medical cannabis consulting company Reynold Greenleaf and Associates, told DOH officials he wanted more state oversight of patients who grow their own cannabis.   

“PPLs need more regulation, they need more oversight for public safety issues,” Ford said. “These are significant and serious issues that affect the general public and their safety.”

PPLs, or Personal Production Licenses, allow patients who qualify to grow up to four plants for their own use. He voice concern with a proposed rule change that would allow PPL holders to take their harvested cannabis to licensed manufacturers to produce extracts and concentrates. Four plants, Ford said, could equal about 20 pounds a year per PPL. 

Ford’s comments, and the online rebuttals from PPL patients that came after, highlight an issue that DOH will likely be forced to address, especially before New Mexico legalizes cannabis for recreational use: whether PPL patients should be regulated similar to Licensed Non-Profit Producers who sell products through their dispensaries. 

Josh McCurdy with the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients Advocate Alliance told NM Political Report that he didn’t appreciate the suggestion that PPL patients are doing anything other than growing their own medicine, often in places where dispensaries are far and few between. 

“We need more competition,” McCurdy, who lives and grows his own cannabis in Ruidoso, said. “That’s the reason it’s $10 a gram in Albuquerque and it goes from $12 to $15 in rural areas.”

He estimated his homegrown cannabis costs about $5 to $6 a gram to grow. 

McCurdy disagreed with Ford’s claim that four plants harvested around 4 to five times a year could yield about 20 pounds. 

“I’ve been by a few hundred PPL grows in this state and 99 percent of them are struggling just to yield a couple of ounces every four months,” McCurdy said. 

McCurdy dismissed a common sentiment he said he’s heard from producers—that home growers contribute to illegal cannabis sales. 

“The producers have put it in a way, where they like to do some fear mongering and act like the PPLs are the illicit black market,” McCurdy said.

One Trump tax cut was meant to help the poor. A billionaire ended up winning big.

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox. Under a six-lane span of freeway leading into downtown Baltimore sit what may be the most valuable parking spaces in America. Lying near a development project controlled by Under Armour’s billionaire CEO Kevin Plank, one of Maryland’s richest men, and Goldman Sachs, the little sliver of land will allow Plank and the other investors to claim what could amount to millions in tax breaks for the project, known as Port Covington. They have President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax overhaul law to thank.