New Mexico's much-anticipated cannabis bill landed in the Legislature last week.

Compared with frameworks in 10 other states that have legalized the plant, HB 356 has some cutting-edge features, such as a mandate to direct funds from recreational cannabis sales to subsidize the medical cannabis program, which has been a longstanding demand of New Mexico patient advocates.

The bill also directs the regulating body—which would be established as the Cannabis Control Division in the Regulation and Licensing Department—to create “procedures that promote and encourage full participation in the cannabis industry” of people harmed by cannabis prohibition, an acknowledgement of the decades-long Drug War’s failures and disproportionate negative impacts on non-white people. 

Beyond those two provisions, the bill includes a tax structure that would end up more costly for consumers than its equivalents in other states, and includes language to fund a variety of social and research programs.

There are also some contradictions: Mainly, that the bill would create new severe penalties even as it eliminates old ones.

Below are the four takeaways from the 140-page bill, first due for consideration by two House committees before a potential floor vote. Then, to the Senate.

1. Local impact

The bill outlines two primary ways local jurisdictions would be affected.

First, cities and counties have the option of banning cannabis retailers (a business roughly equivalent to "dispensaries" under the medical cannabis program). They would also be able to level civil penalties and regulate people licensed to grow cannabis at home.

But that's about where their power to ban pot ends under this proposal. Local governments would not be able to prohibit the transportation of cannabis on public roads, nor could they ban licensed medical dispensaries or personal grows. They would have to ensure any retail shop selling cannabis was at least 300 feet away from any school, church or daycare center.

Cities and counties could opt to impose an excise tax of up to 3 percent on cannabis sales in their jurisdictions. This would come on top of a 9 percent excise tax from the state applied to the price of a cannabis product. All taxes, the bill says, would be collected at the point of purchase, which is different from some other states. Colorado, for example, imposes an excise tax when cultivators transfer or sell cannabis to retailers in addition to a sales tax on consumer purchases. In New Mexico, customers would bear all the taxes.

2. Justice for the Drug War

Besides directing the new Cannabis Control Division to promote the inclusion of people with past cannabis convictions in a new industry, the bill says state agencies “shall not” keep records of people arrested or convicted for cannabis distribution or possession beyond two years.

For people currently locked up on cannabis-related charges, the jail or prison holding them would have 30 days to notify the court that the prisoner's case should be reopened to consider dismissal of his or her sentence. People with convictions for cannabis on their records would be able to ask the court for dismissal or to re-designation to lesser infractions.

Yet, the bill creates some serious new penalties. For example, penalties for having more than the allowable 2 ounces of flower (or 16 grams of extract) range from misdemeanors to felonies, and anyone of the ages 18, 19, or 20 caught growing cannabis could be charged with a felony. However, the bill stipulates that anybody charged with these offenses can expect to have their records wiped clean two years after arrest or conviction.

3. How recreational impacts medical

A portion of the state's excise tax on cannabis sales would go to a "health and safety fund" housed in the Department of Health to subsidize medical cannabis purchases by licensed patients. As a result of this fund and taxes on recreational sales, a gross receipts tax currently levied on medical cannabis purchases would disappear.

"This is something I think is pretty unique to our bill in New Mexico," Emily Kaltenbach of the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance tells SFR. The provision was also partially inspired by Colorado, where the medical cannabis supply was eclipsed by a recreational supply that emphasizes the THC compound over the non-psychoactive CBD, she says.

In addition to subsidizing medical cannabis purchases, the fund would support a public campaign promoting safe use by adults and abstinence for people under 21.

If the bill passes this year, current holders of nonprofit producer licenses for medical dispensaries that want to transition to recreational retail shops can apply for temporary licenses that the Cannabis Control Division is expected to hand out by the start of 2020. The shops would be required to get full certification after the division promulgates final regulations.

4. Establishing community grants and research funding

The bill would establish another fund—a community grants reinvestment program—to funnel dollars toward nonprofit organizations or governmental entities that provide social services to people affected by past Drug War policies.

These include job placement programs, mental health and substance abuse treatment, legal services "to address barriers faced by formerly incarcerated persons" such as housing discrimination, and reproductive care for women. Grants can also go to programs for children who are in or out of school and at-risk for substance abuse and homelessness.

In addition, the bill establishes a research program at the University of New Mexico's Health Sciences Center to study, among other things, whether there's a link between cannabis and other drug use, its effects on opioid dependence, public safety issues relating to cannabis and whether limits on advertisements are effective in preventing weed use among kids.

Finally, the local DWI grant program in the state treasury would be amended so that cities and counties could receive grants to develop "best practices" for monitoring high driving. This paradigm assumes driving drunk and driving high are analogous, although research from around the country suggests the latter is safer, roughly the equivalent of driving with a blood alcohol concentration between .01 and .05 percent. The presumed level of alcohol intoxication in New Mexico is 0.08 percent.

What’s legal under New Mexico’s cannabis legalization bill?

  • Possessing, using and transporting 2 ounces or less of cannabis (or 16 grams of extract).
  • Up to two people in a household can each grow up to six mature plants and six immature plants with a personal license. Having more is a felony.
  • There’s a $50 fine for smoking in a public area, but vaping it is fine.
  • There’s a $25 fine for producing cannabis in public.
  • It’s a felony for a person who is 18, 19 or 20 years old to grow their own cannabis.
  • It’s a felony to use volatile solvents to manufacture cannabis extracts without a license.