New Mexico pot legalization bill advances as time runs short 1 of 2 State Sen. Mimi Stewart discusses the Clean Fuel Standard Act during debate on the Senate floor during the annual legislative session on Thursday, March 11, 2021, in Santa Fe, N.M. The bill, which would create financial incentives to reduce fuel emissions, passed
New Mexico pot legalization bill advances as time runs short
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Legislation to legalize cannabis in New Mexico advanced Thursday toward a decisive Senate floor vote under a framework that emphasizes government oversight of pricing and supplies and social services for communities where the criminalization of pot led to aggressive policing.
A Senate judiciary committee advanced a Democrat-sponsored bill on a 5-4 vote amid stinging criticism from Democratic Sen. Joseph Cervantes, who fears the regulatory framework will create a powerful, government-protected monopoly.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has lobbied for legalization amid the pandemic as a new avenue to boost employment and shore up much-needed future state government income.
New Mexico flirted with cannabis legalization in the 1990s, when then-Gov. Gary Johnson challenged taboos against decriminalization in defiance of Republican allies. A medical marijuana program founded in 2007 has attracted more than 100,000 patients.
But the Democrat-dominated Legislature has been reticent to legalize until now. Several hardline opponents of legalization in the state Senate were voted out of office by Democrats in 2020 primary elections, in a shift that paved the way for Thursday’s historic vote.
Senate approval would send the bill to the House to endorse a long list of recent amendments, with little chance of obstruction.
New Mexico can’t approve legislation by ballot initiative and would join a handful of states that have legalized marijuana through the legislative process, including Vermont, Illinois and, soon, Virginia.
In a final committee vetting, senators discarded a legalization proposal from Republican state Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell that stressed low taxes as a framework to stamp out the illicit marijuana market.
Legalization advocates have focused instead on revisions to a House-approved bill from Democratic state Reps. Javier Martínez of Albuquerque and Andrea Romero of Santa Fe that emphasizes support for communities adversely affected by marijuana criminalization in the past.
The House-backed bill provides some automated pardon and expungement procedures for past marijuana possession charges and convictions.
Hobbyists would be authorized to grow up to six mature marijuana plants at home for personal use — or 12 per household. Legalization advocates say that provision would deter police in the future from using the smell of cannabis as grounds for searching homes and vehicles.
The bill encourages the Legislature to set aside public funds in the future to underwrite vocation training for cannabis workers, education to prevent substance abuse, and an array of social services in communities that have experienced tough policing against illicit drugs.
Changes made last-minute to the bill would initiate a study of cannabis production levels in other states and monitor the New Mexico market to ensure “market equilibrium.” State regulators could put a freeze on cannabis production levels or new licenses.
Cervantes warned that the state may inadvertently be creating a tightly regulated cartel of marijuana producers, much like the liquor license system that lawmakers reformed this year to spur new opportunities in the hospitality industry.
“In other words, the government is going to decide how much of a shortage, how much of a demand and whether the price is right or not,” he said.
Proponents of the current bill say it would foster competition and that market controls would expire after three years, but Cervantes voiced skepticism. Several incumbent medical marijuana producers have lobbied for an extension of state production caps that some say inflate prices.
“Those that are able to control the market for those first three years, as you’re describing, will get very used to the idea of being able to control that market,” Cervantes said. “I’m sure the big boys have written this bill. I wasn’t born yesterday.”
The bill awaiting a Senate vote is designed to ensure opportunities for small craft-marijuana producers under a micro-license system that combines cultivation, manufacturing of pot products, sales and lounges for social consumption of weed.
“The micro-licenses are an example of racial and economic justice,” Martínez said. “It’s a way for people of color to be able to get in to the industry. Social justice is not limited to the expungement” of past offenses.
It calls for a combined state and local excise tax on sales of 12%, on top of existing gross receipts taxes on sales that range from roughly 5% to 9% by location.
Medical marijuana would become tax-free, with provisions for subsidized cannabis for poor patients.
Past drug convictions of any kind would not preclude people from securing an industry license.
State Sen. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque helped advance the bill, but wondered aloud how regulators would determine appropriate production levels as marijuana tourism draws in visitors from neighboring Texas, where nonmedical marijuana remains illegal.
Small craft pot operations would get a head start in the industry in July. The sale of nonmedical cannabis to adults 21 and over is scheduled for March 1, 2022.
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