Two state senators on opposite sides of the political aisle introduced competing bills Monday to legalize recreational marijuana in New Mexico. A third proposal, also filed Monday, is expected to be formally introduced Tuesday in the House of Representatives, and other bills could be forthcoming. The push to legalize cannabis for recreational adult use comes after previous efforts failed under a more conservative group of New Mexico lawmakers. It also comes as the state government seeks to diversify its revenue sources to reduce its heavy reliance on oil and gas. But the two senators who introduced the first cannabis legalization bills of this year’s 60-day legislative session, and the state director of the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, said generating revenue shouldn’t be the driving force.
New Mexico lawmakers have tried to take on drug addiction and deadly overdoses for decades. During previous years, lawmakers from both major parties attempted to address opiate epidemics in the state through both increased penalties and more progressive measures.
This year, with not only a Democratic majority and a Democratic governor, but also a new incoming class of more progressive Democrats in the Senate, the state could see movement on bills that would lower penalties for drug possession as well as public health minded approaches to addiction.
Rep. Debbie Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, told NM Political Report that she plans to sponsor a bill that would allow for safe and legal places to use illegal narcotics, often referred to as safe injection sites. The idea, Armstrong said, is that people would be able to bring already obtained narcotics to a designated location where there would be medical professionals on hand to assist in the event of an overdose and provide resources for recovery.
“It makes sense to me, for public safety, for the health and safety of the individual and a different attempt to try and get folks help,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong, who has consistently sponsored healthcare related bills during her six years in the Legislature, said safe consumption sites would hopefully address concerns in many communities regarding used needles scattered around public areas like parks and playgrounds. But, she said, it would also address over-criminalization of substance addiction.
“It is definitely a healthcare issue,” Armstrong said. “But it is a criminal justice reform as well, because this is a safe place with no threat of being arrested.
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.
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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.
A Republican state senator on Thursday introduced a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana but, unlike a Democratic House bill, would have the state operate retail marijuana stores. Sen. Mark Moores of Albuquerque said in a phone interview Thursday that, considering the number of western states that have adopted laws treating marijuana more like alcohol, legalization in New Mexico is inevitable. “It’s a just matter of how we want to do it,” he said. “We should do it in a smart way.” Moores said his proposal would take steps to reduce harmful effects of marijuana, “while allowing adults the liberty of using marijuana if they want to.”
Proponents of legalizing marijuana have long pointed to a prospective windfall they say state and local governments could enjoy by taxing products that now circulate on the black market. But the sponsors of a bill to legalize marijuana in New Mexico have an unlikely goal. They don’t want to tax it too much. And there’s a reason why. “Our goal was to stay under 20 percent,” said Rep. Javier Martinez, a Democrat from Albuquerque who is co-sponsoring House Bill 356, known as the Cannabis Regulation Act.
Recreational marijuana would become legal for people 21 or older in New Mexico and the state could tax marijuana sold in licensed stores under a bill introduced Thursday by state Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque. House Bill 356 would establish a licensing system that supporters say favors small businesses and institute a 9 percent tax on marijuana for buyers who are not patients in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program. The revenue would go for research and education as well as community grants for workforce training, substance misuse treatment, mental health treatment, and youth drug-education and prevention programs.
Cities and counties would be allowed to opt out of allowing retail marijuana sales. “It’s time to be smart about the war on drugs,” Martínez told The New Mexican in an interview last week. He called the decades-long state and federal anti-marijuana policies a failure.
A majority of New Mexico voters support legalizing recreational marijuana. And a governor who opposes the idea will leave office at the start of the year, giving hope to some supporters of the idea. But even if New Mexico’s next governor supports the legalization of recreational marijuana, a familiar obstacle would still stand in the way: the state Senate. State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino has sponsored legislation to legalize recreational marijuana since 2014. He’s tried with constitutional amendments in the past, but if Michelle Lujan Grisham, who supports legalization, wins office then the effort will go through regular statue.
With Democrats back in full control of the New Mexico legislature, marijuana policy reform will likely continue gaining traction in 2017. Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park, has sponsored his version of a legalization bill since 2015, only to see it die before a committee ever hears it. McCamley has vowed to continue introducing the legislation as to keep the discussion going, even with a governor who opposes marijuana legalization. “It’s not an academic exercise anymore,” McCamley said of legalization bills in the upcoming 2017 session. Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor, has long been a critic of marijuana legalization and said she would veto any measures to do so.
A proposal that would allow voters to weigh in on legalizing recreational marijuana passed its second test and will now advance to the Senate floor. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 5-4 in favor of the proposed constitutional amendment on party lines, marking the first time marijuana legalization legislation has ever made it to the floor of either chamber in the New Mexico Legislature. Related Story: Marijuana legalization proposal dies on Senate floor
“The vote tonight made history because it’s never passed through two committees,” Emily Kaltenbach, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, said following the vote. “It’s a really important step and it shows just the momentum of the discussion and the will of the people have finally been listened to.”
The legislation passed the Senate Rules Committee earlier this week. When the legislation passed the Rules Committee in 2015, it was the first time such legislation had ever passed one committee.
A proposal to legalize marijuana advanced from the Senate Rules Committee Wednesday morning, in a fashion that even a key supporter found surprising. Related Story: Marijuana legalization passed a second committee for the first time ever
The Senate Rules Committee initially voted against a do-pass motion, which would send the proposed constitutional amendment to the Senate Judiciary Committee with a recommendation to pass. The vote was on party lines with Democrats in favor and Republicans against; there were an equal number of each in the committee Wednesday. Related Story: House says no to worker’s comp money going to medical pot
Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, then asked for a do-pass with no recommendation. Sen. Ted Barela, R-Estancia, joined all Democrats present and voted for the legislation.