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Looking Ahead: Gubernatorial Candidates on NM’s Cannabis Future

May 24, 2017, 12:00 am

Come 2019, Susana Martinez will no longer be in control of the state’s medical cannabis program. Whoever replaces her as governor will need to have a plan for how to adapt the program—or to even branch out and make cannabis legal for all adult buyers like other states that started with a medical-only program. SFR spoke to potential gubernatorial candidates about their views on cannabis—all Democrats. We also reached out to US Rep. Steve Pearce, rumored to be considering a run for governor on the Republican ticket. He did not reply by presstime.

Jeff Apodaca

Apodaca’s father, former governor Jerry Apodaca, was governor when New Mexico became the first state to legislate the medical use of cannabis in 1978 through Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act. The law authorized New Mexico State University to grow a small number of plants for cancer patients, but by the 1980s the program lost all funding. That’s how Jeff Apodaca was able to use medical cannabis throughout high school and college after he was diagnosed with cancer.

“I did experience and saw the benefits across the board on medical cannabis and how beneficial it can be,” the former media executive tells SFR.

He says a gap between rising demand for the plant and limits on supply call for the next administration to “seriously take a look at expanding medical cannabis.” Apodaca says his plan to create over 200,000 new jobs in the state includes the development of the hemp and cannabis industries. Specifically, he says the two industries together could create “almost 32,000 jobs” during his time as governor—including through recreational cannabis.

But Apodaca says cannabis could be more than a driver of jobs: It could also be an area where New Mexico’s universities lead other states in research and development.

“If they can create 34 different strains of green chiles, are you telling me we can’t lead the world, the country, in [cannabis] research from our university?”

Peter DeBenedittis

Peter DeBenedittis thinks it’s “inevitable” that the state’s Legislature will expand patient access to medical cannabis, and he says he’s not going to stand in the way of any such legislation that arrives to his desk. But he’s also not necessarily going to stand up for it.

“I’m neutral on it,” he replies after SFR asks him his position on medical cannabis. DeBenedittis seems to distinguish less between its medicinal and recreational uses than the other two candidates, and justifies his ambivalence by citing the moral hangups he believes people have regarding the plant. He also does not conceive of either medical or recreational cannabis as integral to his top five priorities as governor, which include introducing universal healthcare in the state, a living wage, state banking, early childhood education and tax reform.

Those efforts, he says, are going to take “a lot of political capital and effort,” and says he won’t use that capital on cannabis until “the economy is fixed.” However, he does plan to remove restrictions on growing hemp in New Mexico as one of his first priorities for jobs and growth, and believes a cannabis industry would follow.

Joseph Cervantes

While state Sen. Joseph Cervantes hasn’t officially declared his candidacy, he’s hinted at it very strongly, and he’s prepared to talk pot. He voted in favor of legalizing medical cannabis as a state representative in 2007, and is in favor of removing the legal plant cap limit on dispensaries. As he sees it, it’s a choice that should be hashed out between the health department and producers, not the legislature.

“It doesn’t serve any purpose to restrict or limit crop production,” Cervantes tells SFR. “We shouldn’t be creating an artificial barrier and making it harder for people who have qualified for this program.”

He’s also more comfortable with the idea of a recreational market for cannabis in New Mexico than he was before states like Colorado began their experiment. But his one sticking point is the potential for impaired driving to increase. He’d like to see a standardized way for law enforcement to confirm how stoned drivers are when they’re stopped, similar to breathalyzer tests for alcohol.

“We’ve got to get to a place where we have a test and we have a standard,” he says. “I think we’ve got to have those laws in place.”

Michelle Lujan Grisham

“Incredibly favorable,” is how US Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham describes her current view on medical cannabis. She points to her time as health department secretary rolling out the state’s medical cannabis program in 2007 under then-Gov. Bill Richardson as proof of her bonafides.

At the federal level, she supports legislation that would allow banks to take money from medical cannabis businesses, but she does not support a bill currently sitting in Congress that would regulate marijuana like alcohol and bring it under the purview of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. That’s because she sees cannabis primarily as a medicinal substance, and is a bit less favorable to the idea of legalizing it for social use. She says she’d like to see more “longitudinal studies” on the recreational markets in states like Colorado before bringing them to New Mexico. Any legislation legalizing recreational cannabis that arrives to her desk would have to address workers’ compensation, public safety and education, she says.

It’s a balancing act she is also pursuing when it comes to lifting the caps on plants that dispensaries can grow. While some advocates for patient access want to completely do away with any limits, Lujan Grisham says she would be open to simply amending the caps so that the state’s supply of cannabis never exceeds patient demand.


Matt Grubs contributed reporting.

 

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