NM cannabis industry group gives priorities for a legalization bill

It is likely that the general public will not see drafts of recreational-use cannabis legalization proposals from the legislature until next month, but one group is already suggesting language and looking for a legislative sponsor. 

The New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce publicly released an early of a recreational-use cannabis bill that they say highlights what those in the industry see as important issues. The chamber is made up of more than 40 cannabis organizations, ranging from educational and legal groups to actual cultivators and dispensaries. 

The chamber’s director, Ben Lewinger, said the group worked tirelessly to come up with language that puts the state first. 

“Our members have an agreement that what’s best for their individual companies right now is not necessarily what’s going to be best for the future of cannabis in New Mexico,” Lewinger said. 

The chamber’s early draft includes portions that were included in previous legislation, but also adds to them. 

One issue that has been publicly discussed, but not included in previous attempts is how to ensure cannabis businesses are mostly local. 

The chamber’s proposed solution is to only allow businesses with at least 60 percent of the company owned by those who have lived in the state for two years. Lewinger said the chamber wanted to ensure New Mexicans have a stake in cannabis sales, but also not hinder the flow of capital from outside the state. 

“We were trying to strike a balance between it being a true homegrown New Mexico industry, but not limiting the ability for out-of-state money to come into a New Mexico run company,” he said. 

Oklahoma, which only has a medical cannabis program, albeit one of the most prosperous in the country, has a provision that requires 25 percent of ownership is locally based. But Oklahoma is also facing a legal challenge in federal court over that requirement. Lewinger said given the pending Oklahoma case, he wouldn’t be surprised if New Mexico faces a similar challenge, if the bill moves forward as written.

Growing Forward: Testing and regulations

An ongoing debate in the medical cannabis community is over how much New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program should be regulated and to what testing standards the state should hold producers. 

This week in Growing Forward, we take a look at the state’s regulations and testing standards. 

The state’s Medical Cannabis Program is solely overseen by the New Mexico Department of Health. Dominick Zurlo, the director of the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, said some other states’ medical cannabis programs are overseen by multiple different agencies. 

“New Mexico is fairly unique in this way that we have an overarching Department of Health that covers the entire state,” Zurlo said. 

Earlier this year, DOH held multiple hearings about a change to testing standards. Many in the medical cannabis industry spoke out against the new proposed standards, arguing that the increased costs associated with testing would be passed along to patients. 

Duke Rodriguez, the president and CEO of cannabis producer Ultra Health, has long argued against standards that he calls arbitrary. Rodriguez told Growing Forward that his company is in favor of high testing standards, but warned that the same standards designed to protect patients can hurt their pocketbooks.  

“We want safe, reliable medicine,” Rodriguez said. “We want it to be protected, we want to be clean, but we also have to do it in a responsible way.”

Ultra Health and a handful of other producers also filed legal action against the state, arguing that the new updated rules are “arbitrary and capricious.”

We also spoke with Ginger Grider and her husband Heath.

How Arizona’s cannabis legalization proposition might impact NM

Election Day in New Mexico resulted in a slight expansion of the state’s Senate, and a very slightly reduced, but still large, House Democratic majority. But while New Mexico voters cast their votes on Tuesday, voters in neighboring Arizona voted overwhelmingly to legalize recreational-use cannabis, something the New Mexico Legislature has not been able to pull off, despite years of attempts. 

Arizona may be at least a year away from seeing any significant tax revenue from legalized cannabis, but the proposition included an expungement provision and will allow medical cannabis dispensaries to start selling it for recreational-use by next spring, just as the New Mexico Legislature is set to wrap up their regular legislative session. 

Listen: A special episode of Growing Forward

Whether social and restorative justice or tax revenue is most important seems to be a matter of opinion among proponents and advocates. But most agree that it is imperative that New Mexico lawmakers legalize recreational-use cannabis next year if they want to achieve parity with the neighboring state to the west.  

What’s at stake

In the past several years, legalization efforts have stalled in the Senate, which has been more consevative on many issues, including cannabis. Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth of Santa Fe said he’s optimistic the Senate seats Democrats picked up on Election Day will help get a cannabis legalization bill to the governor’s desk. 

“No question our landscape has changed internally in the Senate with seven new members and voters having spoken loudly and clearly,” Wirth said. “One of the issues that I’ve been very cognizant about is not losing the opportunity to move forward with recreational cannabis.

Growing Forward: Pulling back the leaves

The fifth episode of Growing Forward, the collaborative cannabis podcast between New Mexico PBS and NM Political Report, was released on Tuesday. 

In the episode, we take a look at the cannabis plant itself and hear about how complex it really is. 

Wylie Atherton with New Mexico cannabis producer Seven Point Farms, told Growing Forward that growing experts like him have devoted much of their time to really understanding the intricacies of cannabis. 

“Discerning cannabis is an art form that’s been relegated to small cloistered groups of people who really, really loved the plant,” Atherton said. 

To the novice cannabis user, terms like sativa and indica may not mean much. Others may know the two terms as a way to tell if a cannabis strain is uplifting or relaxing. But Atherton said flavor or aroma profiles play a significant part in how a strain may affect the user. 

Terpenes are compounds found in many plants that produce aromas and flavors. Atherton used driving a car as an analogy for how terpenes and cannabinoids work together. He said the terpenes are like the driver of the car and the cannabinoids are the horsepower or engine of the car. 

“Say you’re smoking a cannabis extract like a distillate that has upwards of 80 percent THC, but there’s no terpene present.

Which legislative races could decide the fate of marijuana legalization

It is unlikely that recreational-use cannabis legalization will be the sole deciding factor for New Mexico voters when they fill out their ballots this year. But Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is a proponent of legalization and the state Legislature is expected to take up the issue next January. And according to a poll commissioned by the Albuquerque Journal this summer, a large majority of New Mexicans are in favor of legalization. At least two major medical cannabis producers contributed almost $35,000 collectively to Democratic candidates or Democratic political committees. 

With the entire Legislature up for election this year, it’s hard to pinpoint whether there will be enough votes to pass any legalization attempts. But, there are a handful of state Senate and House races that could be deciding factors.

Growing Forward and looking to the past

It is nearly a guarantee that recreational cannabis legalization will be one of the main talking points and likely a wedge issue during next year’s legislative session. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has made it clear since she ran for governor and throughout her nearly two years in office that she wants to see cannabis legalized. 

There have been repeated efforts to fully legalize recreational-use cannabis for a number of years, but under former Gov. Susana Martinez those attempts repeatedly failed. Now, with a governor advocating for legalization, backed with potentially millions of dollars, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel for proponents of legalization. 

But both the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions showed that it takes more than the governor’s support to legalize cannabis. For the past five years, even under the Martinez administration, no such effort to legalize cannabis even came close to getting to the governor’s desk. Now, even months before legislation can be filed, lawmakers are already discussing the merits and downsides of legalization.

Tax expert says there could be significant revenues in cannabis legalization, some lawmakers still skeptical

Comments and questions raised on Tuesday during an interim legislative tax policy committee point towards lengthy debates on recreational cannabis legalization in the upcoming legislative session in January. 

Richard Anklam, the president and executive director of the New Mexico Tax Research Institute, told lawmakers that states that were early in legalizing recreational-use cannabis like Colorado, Washington, Oregon and California have seen significant tax revenue increases in the past several years. Anklam, using a study from the Tax Foundation, a national think tank, said New Mexico could see roughly $70 million in excise taxes, before factoring in gross receipts taxes, if the state legalizes cannabis for recreational use. 

While not as common, Anklam said some states who have recently legalized recreational-use cannabis have developed tax models based on potency instead of by volume of what is sold. He said, the potential increase in tax revenue may not become the state’s saving grace, but that it would make a significant impact. 

“What’s the marijuana market worth? It’s worth a lot,” Anklam said. “Most states can’t fund highly significant portions of their government with it, but every little bit helps.”

Duke Rodriguez, the president and CEO of Ultra Health, a New Mexico medical cannabis production company, told lawmakers that despite the large amounts of possible tax money going to the state, current restrictions on cannabis production would not be conducive to a cannabis boom. 

Rodriguez has long been a vocal critic of the state’s Department of Health’s restrictions on how many plants producers can grow.

NM Political Report, NMPBS launch Growing Forward

New Mexico Political Report is excited to announce the result of a months-long collaboration with New Mexico PBS: Growing Forward. 

Growing Forward is a new podcast about cannabis in New Mexico, thanks to a grant from the New Mexico Local News Fund. 

Reporter Andy Lyman and NMPBS correspondent Megan Kamerick have teamed up to produce ten episodes looking at the state’s current medical cannabis program, how it started and what New Mexicans could see in the near future in terms of legalization of recreational-use cannabis. 

You can hear episodes every Tuesday and the first one will be released on Sept. 22. Subscribe on your podcatcher of choice and check out the trailer below. 

Small wins for cannabis in 2020 legislative session

Cannabis legislation was not a complete loss for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during this year’s legislative session, but it was far from a complete win. Despite almost a year of work from a group assembled by Lujan Grisham to come up with proposed legislation for cannabis legalization, the proposal she backed failed early on in the session. The only Lujan Grisham-backed proposal that made it to her desk is a bill that would limit enrollment in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program to New Mexico residents. 

During a press conference after the Legislature adjourned on Thursday, Lujan Grisham said she will keep pushing for a safe and comprehensive legalization measure, even if it means changing the state constitution. New Mexico law does not allow for voter initiatives, which is how most states, including Colorado, legalized cannabis. The only way to change law through an election question is to propose a constitutional amendment, and Lujan Grisham said that’s not off the table. 

“I’m open to any number of pathways,” Lujan Grisham told reporters. 

New Mexicans only

SB 139, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, was promoted as a fix to legislation that was passed into law last year.

Cannabis legalization stalls in committee

A recreational cannabis legalization bill stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday, while a bill that would limit who can become a medical cannabis patient moved on. Both bills are sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, who has pushed for legalization in various ways for a number of years. 

Ortiz y Pino’s legalization bill, SB 115, by far received the most debate and criticism, particularly from the committee’s chairman Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces. Cervantes, who has long pushed for decriminalization, but has said he does not favor full legalization, said he was more concerned with problematic language in the almost 200-page bill. He spent more than 30 minutes going through some of his concerns, one of which was fairness. 

“This bill reflects one of the weaknesses in this state which is the propensity to pick winners and losers,” Cervantes said. 

He meticulously picked apart the bill and cited provisions that he said seemed unfair like a section that aims to include organized labor in cannabis production companies and a section that would create a subsidy program for indigent medical cannabis patients. Cervantes also said he didn’t like that the bill would allow those with previous drug convictions to get into the industry, even invoking the name of infamous drug lord El Chapo. 

The bill was tabled on a 6-3 vote.