State Rep. Javier Martinez spent his early December making a list and checking it more than twice—ticking off items as he and other lawmakers put together the bill that could launch legal cannabis in New Mexico in 2020.
Martinez, D-Albuquerque, and others, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is a staunch supporter of the effort, say they feel fairly confident they can get it to the floor for a vote in both houses despite the short 30-day session and even though a bill (HB 356) in the last session failed to make it out of the Senate Finance Committee. To give the new bill its best shot, Martinez and other lawmakers have been preparing to pre-file this week, which will give the bill a low number and make it one of the first to be heard, they say.
"I'm still tinkering a little with some of the percentages," Martinez, the bill's lead author, tells SFR. "I'm trying to find a way to include startup companies or to find some funding for small startups, but we're not sure how that will play out yet. We're still working on some of the language, but it's a good bill and I don't think there will be any surprises."
Lawmakers are adding pretty much all of the priority suggestions that came from Gov. Lujan Grisham's Working Group on Cannabis Legalization, he says. And Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, D-Albuquerque, says he thinks the bill has a better than 50-50 chance of passing.
"It's a fantastic template for public policy," Maestas says. "The key for me is eliminating the underground market. We think we've hit the key spot for taxation that will do that."
Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, head of the Senate Finance Committee, tells SFR he's not so sure about those odds. The reason the 2019 efforts to legalize recreational use of cannabis didn't make it out of the committee, he says, is because the bill wouldn't have passed, and two sponsors asked him to pull it.
"We had two bills that ended up in my committee last year in Senate Finance," Smith says. "Two sponsors of one of the bills asked me not to hear it, and the other author never came by and even asked me about it. There was no initiative by the sponsors of either to move forward."
Smith, who supported the state medical cannabis program, says he is "not enthused about" a recreational program. In his four-county area in the southern part of the state, there are Border Patrol issues with illegal cannabis, he adds.
Smith says he's also concerned the state won't get the amount of cannabis tax revenues that proponents are touting.
"Advocates for anything will try and overcome that by earmarking funds," Smith says. "But in states like Colorado, when push comes to shove, the taxes didn't generate what they said they would."
The proposed 17% tax rate in the 2020 bill is lower than several other cannabis states, but would still provide New Mexico with revenues to run the system and allocate some funds to law enforcement and other areas, Maestas says.
"Prohibition simply does not work, so we've been working with law enforcement, economists from the University of New Mexico, social justice advocates and all the stakeholders," Maestas says. "We'll only be the third state to legalize through the Legislature, and we have the opportunity to learn and not duplicate the mistakes of other states."
Other recreational states with higher tax rates have failed to eliminate their black markets, and that's been especially challenging for states that legalized through a voter referendum rather than through their legislatures, he says.
"States that legalized overnight by referendum, they've had to go back and build their legislation after the fact," Maestas says. "We've had the chance to build the legislation before the system, and that will help us."
Martinez says he also believes some lawmakers' stances have evolved.
"Our Legislature's understanding of cannabis has greatly improved over the last couple of years," Martinez says. "There's not as much opposition based on ideology anymore. Now it's more about making sure law enforcement has the resources it needs to adapt to this reality."
Smith says there is also concern about drug abuse and the possibility that cannabis could exacerbate some mental illnesses.
"Last year there were a few members of Finance that were opposed that surprised me," Smith says. "One had family members with drug problems. I won't say who the members were, but I went back after talking to them to tell the bill sponsors the votes just weren't there."
Still, Martinez and Maestas say they're hopeful the bill will make it through this time around, especially after looking at and incorporating suggestions from around the state as part of the governor's task force.
One lesson they learned during that process is that licenses should not become re-sellable commodities. That lesson stems from liquor license issues that plague the state, Maestas says.
"Liquor licenses have become a marketable commodity because we let licensees sell or lease their licenses," Maestas says. "The last two sold for about $500,000. So we wanted to learn from that. No cannabis licenses will ever be sold or leased to another person. That was a disaster on the liquor side."
Maestas says he agrees that the opposition has evolved. In the last House session, he thought he would see more debate over legalization, but it ended up being mostly an up or down vote.
"Even the law enforcement community has acknowledged that arresting someone for cannabis is a waste of a cop's time," Maestas says. "We educated the vast majority, and we just hope the constituents continue to educate policy makers, because constituents know a lot more than the policy makers about this."
The bill is also likely to include a provision that would expunge previous criminal records for people guilty of marijuana posesssion and related offeneses.
Both Maestas and Martinez say they expect the bill to move.
"It's not going to run out of time—it will be a vote up or down," Maestas says. "And I'm hopeful people will realize it's time, and that the bill's not going to get any better, because it's fantastic."
Martinez declined to give his prediction on odds of the bill passing, but Maestas took a stab at it.
"Better than 51%, I suppose?" he says.
Smith says he's really not sure what to expect in the vote.
"My guess," he says, "is on the Senate side, it will be very close."