One cannabis legalization effort moves forward, another fails in committee

A New Mexico House of Representatives committee on Monday approved one proposal to legalize recreational-use cannabis and tabled another. 

The House Health and Human Services Committee voted mostly along party lines to pass HB 12 on to its next committee. Rep. Phelps Anderson of Roswell voted, along with Republican committee members, against HB 12. He recently changed his political affiliation from Republican to independent. 

Both HB 12, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Javier Martínez of Albuquerque and Andrea Romero of Santa Fe, and HB 17, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Tara Lujan of Santa Fe and Roger Montoya of Velarde, had largely similar aims. But Martínez and Romero’s bill would allow for home cultivation, unlimited plant counts for producers and no limits on how much cannabis a person can possess in their home. 

The committee also voted 7-4 to table HB 17, essentially stalling the bill indefinitely. 

Committee Chair Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, who is also a sponsor of HB 12, praised the efforts of all of the sponsors, but said that she wanted to streamline the effort to legalize cannabis. 

“I do think it was a responsibility of this committee to try and narrow this down and not do the same thing all over again in the next committee,” Armstrong said. 

Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, who voted against HB 12 and also voted against tabling HB 17, said she disagreed with the notion of paring down cannabis legalization proposals and that lawmakers should be able to consider all legislation. 

“I will say there is no reason to streamline because this is what we’re supposed to do,” Gail Armstrong said.

NM lawmakers faced with a number of proposals to legalize cannabis

New Mexicans who are following the push by many lawmakers to legalize recreational-use cannabis now have plenty of reading material. 

Legislators have filed four legalization bills, two of which have identical language. All of the bills have the same general goal, but with different paths to get there and varying standards of what would and wouldn’t be allowed in a post-legalization New Mexico. Passage of any of the bills is still not a guarantee and given the history of previous cannabis legalization proposals and the legislative process in general, it is likely some pieces of the differing bills will be absorbed into one final bill. What was once an issue with more of a binary argument, is now an issue with nuances and proponents with a variety of priorities as it gets closer to becoming reality. Just six years ago, a cannabis legalization bill sponsored by a Democrat was assigned to five committees and was never considered by its first panel.

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.

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.