House sends marijuana legalization bill to Senate

Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, introduced a substitute marijuana legalization bill Thursday night that considerably altered language in the original legislation. Gabriela Campos/New Mexican file photo

After a three-hour debate Thursday night, the state House of Representatives by a narrow margin — 36-34 — approved a measure that would legalize recreational use of marijuana in New Mexico.

Residents 21 years or older would be allowed to buy, possess and use cannabis under the proposal, which also would create a state oversight commission.

House Bill 356 next heads to the Senate for consideration. If the Senate approves it, it will go to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has said she favors legalizing recreational marijuana if the proper safeguards are put in place.

If such a proposal became law, New Mexico would become the 11th state to decriminalize marijuana, which remains illegal under federal law.

The bill’s fate in the Senate, where Republicans and several conservative Democrats repeatedly have voted against past legalization efforts, remains unclear. A Senate initiative introduced by three Republicans, Senate Bill 577, has similarities to the House bill, which gives some hope to backers that a legalization bill could clear the Legislature’s upper chamber.

Thursday’s vote only came after one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, introduced a substitute bill that considerably altered language in the original legislation.

Among compromise measures: Instead of allowing residents to possess up to 2 ounces of marijuana, they could only possess 1 ounce. While the original bill would have allowed New Mexicans to grow cannabis on their private property, that provision was struck because of fear of starting a “black market,” Martinez said.

And, under the substitute bill, anyone who bought recreational marijuana from a licensed store must be able to produce the receipt or risk criminal charges.

House Democrats in support of the bill framed it as a crime-prevention measure, saying it would help put illegal dealers and criminal cartels out of business.

As one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, put it, “Prohibition does not work.”

Republicans voicing opposition to the measure emphasized the potential for more auto accidents involving drivers testing positive for marijuana, especially in a state that already has a high rate of drunken-driving crashes, some involving deaths.

A February report by the University of Minnesota that studied the impact of marijuana in the two states that first decriminalized it in 2012 — Colorado and Washington — found that officials in both states were dealing with growing problems regarding driving-under-the-influence cases and use by underage residents.

In October, a report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute found a 6 percent increase in vehicle crashes in four states that have legalized marijuana: Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Nevada.

Legalization would come with a 4 percent excise tax, money that could raise tens of millions of dollars for the state, Martinez said. That money would be used for several purposes, including for research and to help law enforcement detect and combat DWIs caused by marijuana use.

The original bill called for a 9 percent excise tax. Both the original and substitute bill would give counties and municipalities the right to impose additional local taxes.

The bill makes a provision for employers to create a zero tolerance policy regarding cannabis use in the workplace.

“Cannabis legalization is inevitable,” Maestas said.

About 67,500 New Mexicans have legal access to marijuana and cannabis products for medical use, according to the New Mexico Department of Health. These are patients diagnosed by a physician with any of a number of specified ailments and diseases — including cancer, HIV/AIDS and chronic pain — who benefit from a state law approved in 2007 by both the Legislature and then-Gov. Bill Richardson.

Education Reporter

Robert Nott covers education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican