More than a decade after New Mexico legalized marijuana for medical use, permitting it to any adult for any reason is still proving to be a significant challenge.
This week, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that legalizing recreational marijuana is one of her top legislative priorities in 2020, and on Friday, a House bill that would do so was unveiled. During a 30-day budget session, the state’s constitution requires the governor to release an official list of what nonbudget bills will be debated. Legalizing marijuana for recreational use is on that list.
“The Legislature has the opportunity to pass the largest job-creation program in New Mexico in a decade,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement about House Bill 160.
Although supporters — including the governor and Democrats in the state House — have been vocal in touting its expected economic boon, the jobs they say it will create, and the law enforcement and other programs it could help fund, the negative perception of pot lingers enough that the effort could go up in smoke yet again.
In an hour-and-a-half interview with The New Mexican, Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, and Sen. Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, expressed skepticism about whether the bill can clear the Senate.
It is expected to have little trouble passing the state House, where Democrats have a 46-24 majority and passed a legalization proposal last year. While Democrats also have a majority in the Senate, some more conservative Democratic senators still have concerns about how recreational cannabis would impact the state.
Even with the projected 11,000 jobs the Governor’s Office argues legalization will create, and more than $600 million in projected revenue by the fifth year of the program, the effort could face an uphill climb.
A large hurdle will be convincing moderate Democrats that marijuana does not pose a public health threat. Republicans who could support the measure, meanwhile, want more local control and funding for law enforcement.
“There’s an economic side of this, but I think the real heart of it is the focus on the health impact and the societal impact of adding this in a state with the challenges that we have,” Wirth said, referring to already high rates of drug and alcohol abuse across New Mexico. “It’s one more substance being added.
“I don’t know the votes are there within our caucus, but there are other Republican votes on the floor,” Wirth said. “The bill last session, I think, would have passed had it been on the Senate floor.”
The Senate leader said he has heard the same concern about marijuana’s impact on health from other senators on both sides of the aisle, including Papen.
Papen, the Senate president pro tem, said she is particularly concerned about the effect of marijuana on teenagers’ developing brains and the possibility that legalizing it for recreational use could encourage more teens to use it. Papen said she also is concerned about a lack of long-term research on the health impacts of marijuana.
“That’s my biggest concern,” said Papen, who added she remains undecided on how she will vote. “Nobody seems to be able to come up with that.”
The senator added, “As more and more states get involved, we probably won’t make the money that we think we’re [going to be] making now. It shouldn’t be just the money.”
More money or more problems?
Despite concerns from the Senate, Lujan Grisham is using her political clout to try to win over the skeptics.
During a 30-minute address Thursday at a $50-per-plate luncheon with the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, the governor told business leaders recreational weed will be “an economic game changer.”
She acknowledged it will be a “heavy lift” in the Legislature but reminded luncheon attendees of the thousands of jobs it’s projected to create, hundreds of millions in projected sales, and $100 million in annual revenue for state and local governments.
More than 75,000 people in New Mexico are already registered as medical cannabis patients. The adult-use recreational market is expected to grow to six times the size of the state’s Medical Cannabis Program in five years. New Mexico growers are already producing more hemp and medical marijuana than they are alfalfa or green chile, the state’s historically biggest crops.
For big proponents like state Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, who is sponsoring HB 160, the money is more than enough of a reason to support it. It could be used to help repair some of the damage Martinez argues was done to communities hit hardest by the war on drugs.
“For far too long, cannabis has gotten the same type of treatment that other hard drugs have gotten based on bogus science and really based on very racist worldviews,” Martinez said. “I think New Mexico is prime not only to be a leader in legalization, but a leader in legalizing the right way, which is what our goal is with our bill.”
Martinez’s bill would create a “cannabis training and education program” that would be offered at New Mexico colleges. Martinez also argues the legislation is centered on ensuring equity for communities that have suffered most from the criminalization of marijuana and “ensuring that we protect and enhance the medical program.”
The lawmaker is pushing for gross receipts taxes on medical marijuana to be reduced and subsidizing medical weed with adult-use revenue. It also would create a training program to help police identify drivers who might be high, and it offers some degree of local control on the timing and location of marijuana businesses.
It does not offer local governments the option to opt out of the market as in some states, such as Colorado and Michigan.
Broadly, it would regulate from seed to sale every aspect of the marijuana market, bringing the industry out of the black market and into the sphere of regulation and taxation.
But some simply won’t be swayed. They argue it still presents a danger to drivers and believe it could increase crime and addiction. “I think it’s kind of unfortunate with all the other issues facing New Mexico ... that we get bogged down with something that’s as controversial as this,” said state Rep. James Townsend, R-Artesia. “I haven’t talked to a law enforcement officer or a rehab director yet that tell me, ‘Oh don’t worry about it, it’s not gonna have an impact,’ ” Townsend said.
But more crucial to the bill’s passage are senators who remain on the fence.
Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, for example, said he could support it with the right degree of local control and if there was enough funding for law enforcement that came along with the measure.
Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque, also expressed skepticism, in large part because of the governor’s decision to put Pat Davis, an Albuquerque city councilor, in charge of the work group that developed the recommendations the legislation is based on.
“I don’t have much faith in it,” Moores said. “The governor’s decision to put a radical political operative who has spent his career attacking Republicans and moderate Democrats in charge chilled the process.
“It sent the message she wants this as a political issue and isn’t interested in working on a bipartisan effort,” he continued. “Putting him in charge sent the message to Republicans and moderate Dems in the Senate she wanted this more for a campaign issue and to raise political donations than coming up with a solution.”
Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, has argued New Mexico isn’t ready to legalize marijuana. Cervantes supported decriminalization and allowing it for medical use, but said “past legislation that has been introduced has not ensured workplace safety.”
Carlos Martinez, an Albuquerque attorney who chairs the state bar’s cannabis law section, said he hears mixed reactions from many different factions in the marijuana business community. But a budget session doesn’t offer a lot of time in a state where marijuana still has a negative aura for many. “I just don’t think it’s gonna be able to pass in this 30-day session,” he said.
Staff writer Jens Gould contributed to this report