With Gov. Susana Martinez' tenure in its twilight and a polling lead for the Democratic, pro-legalization woman running to replace her, New Mexico theoretically has a shot at joining eight states where cannabis is grown and recreationally sold to adults 21 and over.
But during an interim meeting of the Legislature's Economic and Rural Development Committee on Wednesday, discussion of the issue was rife with fear and ignorance, and short on nuts-and-bolts details for how this industry could actually be set up. Panelists also presented diametrically opposed statistics about the benefits and harms of cannabis.
Overall, legislators expressed more skepticism than enthusiasm for the possibility of legalizing cannabis in New Mexico. Testifying before the committee was Jeremy Vaughan, president of the New Mexico State Police Association, and California-based Drug Policy Alliance attorney Jolene Forman, as well as representatives from the state's Regulation and Licensing Department.
Vaughan told legislators his association represents officers who both endorse and oppose legal weed. His testimony revolved around fears some police officers in New Mexico harbor should the state follow the lead of others like Colorado and Washington.
Among officers' gravest concerns were driving under the influence and an "anticipated increase in demand being met by cheap black-market marijuana." Vaughan cited reports from Colorado state agencies indicating a relationship between fatal driving accidents and drivers who tested positive for cannabis.
Based on conversations with law enforcement in other states, Vaughan argued that legalization would increase demand for marijuana and therefore keep the black market for pot afloat, if not make it even bigger. Police would then "naturally" target lower-income people more likely to buy cannabis off the black market, the retired officer said.
Foreman, of the Drug Policy Alliance, pushed back, saying that arrests for cannabis uniformly declined after legalization in the states where DPA examined data supplied by their respective agencies. Foreman also told the committee states that legalized cannabis exceeded tax revenue expectations on the whole and created over 100,000 new jobs. The DPA estimates recreational cannabis would bring 11,000 new jobs to New Mexico.
Yet for all the discussion of how legalization has played out in other states, New Mexico's identity as a low-income, racially majority-minority state kept coming up, mostly by people who saw those facts as obstacles to legalization.
The idea that New Mexico's population is too underemployed and undereducated for legal cannabis has been trotted out by Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce, who opposes recreational cannabis and reluctantly supports the state's medical cannabis program.
During questioning, state Rep. Rod Montoya (R-Farmington) expanded on Pearce's theory by bringing up New Mexico's racial demographics. He wondered aloud whether legalizing cannabis would cause police to enforce drug laws in a way that impacts people of color more than they currently do—since so many people in the state are not white.
"I'm wondering, we have, especially Albuquerque has some real problems with the police force interacting with the poor and minority population, some real [and] some perceived, I'm wondering if that will be exacerbated [by legalization]," Montoya said.
Vaughan replied that he was concerned police would indeed continue to target poor and nonwhite people for drug law enforcement in the event of legalization. He feared it would occur to an even greater extent.
"I'm concerned with our poverty rate, that [the recreational cannabis industry] being controlled by the haves, and the have-nots wanting to get it and use it," Vaughan said. "From a law enforcement perspective, I agree. When I patrolled the streets of Albuquerque, I'm targeting unfortunately de facto poor people."
After Foreman's testimony, in which she disputed some of Vaughan's claims about cannabis having a negative impact on traffic accident rates in Colorado, the attorney was grilled by Rep. Bill Rehm (R-Albuquerque), who asked a series of seemingly unrelated questions.
"When did the increase in drunk driving begin?" Rehm asked, before semi-answering his own question: "In the late '80s and on, what we started finding in DUIs is individuals mixing alcohol with drugs, multiple drugs."
Visibly taken aback, Foreman replied that the fatal crash and DWI rates were at historic lows nationwide.
Another committee member, Rep. Harry Garcia (D-Bernalillo), asked Foreman if cannabis was a gateway to other substances, a theory that has mostly been debunked.
“How many people go from marijuana to stronger drugs?” Garcia asked. “The reason I brought that one up, I take it you drink beer or wine, after a while it doesn’t suit you anymore, you need a bigger high so you go to a stronger alcohol. And with marijuana it’s the same deal.”
The squabbles mostly overshadowed testimony by Robert Unthank, superintendent of the state's Regulation and Licensing Department. Unthank said agencies would have to prepare for collaborating on cannabis licensing and enforcement if legal recreational use became a reality.
Some of those agencies, "when you're talking about everything from growing to dispensing," include the Department of Health, the Tax and Revenue Department, and the Department of Agriculture, Unthank said, referencing interagency collaboration in Colorado. That state has also rolled licensing and enforcement of cannabis law into a single body, but Unthank believes the way New Mexico delegates alcohol law enforcement to state police would work for cannabis, too.
Unthank also said that if cannabis regulation were to be housed under the Alcohol and Gaming Division, the number of full-time employees should be increased from 15 to 35. He estimated the cost of administering a recreational cannabis industry between $5 and $7 million "depending on the scope of what RLD" and other agencies take on.
Asked if any legislators were currently sponsoring a bill for recreational cannabis, Rep. Linda Trujillo (D-Santa Fe) said none had yet been put on the table.
However, members of the Health and Human Services Committee are currently drafting a bill to regulate how nurses can dispense CBD while students are in school. That bill will be open to endorsements from other legislators on Nov. 9.