In the Weeds

The legislative debate over legalizing cannabis kicks off Saturday

As New Mexico's virtual Roundhouse approaches the midpoint for the 60-day session, discourse over legalizing cannabis legislation has yet to catch fire. A Saturday hearing in the House Health and Human Services Committee could spark the debate.

A handful of bills floating around the Capitol would make New Mexico the 16th state to fully legalize cannabis for adult use.

Though the proposals have some common features—all axe gross receipts taxes for patients in the medical program, for one—conflicts remain regarding:

  • how taxes will be levied and where revenue will be directed;
  • whether production will be regulated via a plant cap for producers;
  • the right or permission for New Mexicans to legally grow at home;
  • and to what degree a legalization bill should address the drug war’s legacy of inequitable arrests.

The committee's 10 am Saturday agenda features dueling proposals, both titled the Cannabis Regulation Act:

House Bill 12

This measure—sponsored by Albuquerque Democratic Reps. Javier Martínez and Deborah A. Armstrong, along with Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe—is substantively similar to last year's House-passed bill crafted by a governor-appointed task force. It's a 183-page proposal that would legalize adult consumption of cannabis (allowing two ounces to be purchased per person, per day); create a body called the Cannabis Regulatory Advisory Committee to impose a taxation structure; direct the revenues toward addressing the social injustice of drug prosecution on Black and brown people and to support low-income medical cannabis patients; and automatically expunge the records of those with previous convictions for cannabis possession crimes.

The proposal includes provisions to allow for home growing, prohibits the state from capping commercial production and orders rules to be promulgated by no later than Jan. 1, 2022. This is by far the most comprehensive bill on offer this year and, just this week, a largely similar version was introduced in the Senate—Senate Bill 363, sponsored by Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque.

House Bill 17

The proposal—sponsored by freshmen Reps. Tara L. Lujan, D-Santa Fe, and Roger Montoya, D-Española—features what backers call a "simplified tax structure" that levies a 20% sales tax on cannabis and directs the money broadly to states, cities and counties. The bill would move the Medical Cannabis program out of the health department's domain and create a new "cannabis regulation division" within the Regulation and Licensing Department—the same department that regulates alcohol—and start issuing licenses for producers as soon as this July. The New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce trade group is lobbying for the bill and its Senate Bill 13 companion introduced by Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque, with the message that the home-grow and crime-expungement provisions of the alternative proposals could be deal breakers for lawmakers. Instead, this proposal explicitly prohibits home cultivation outside of the medical cannabis program and doesn't address expunging prior crimes. It also says the state should evaluate supply and demand every year and regulate the amount of legal production.

How much room might there be for compromise between the two sides? Martínez has said repeatedly that passing a legalization bill without the social justice provisions in HB12 is not something progressives are likely to support.

And Ivey-Soto told SFR on Thursday that although his proposal does not address past cannabis possession convictions, it's still a provision he intends to push for once the various legalization bills move forward and legislators work toward a compromise.

That's welcome news for Emily Kaltenbach, senior director of resident states and New Mexico director for the Drug Policy Alliance.

Kaltenbach told SFR her organization supports HB12 and SB363 because they "include robust social justice and equity provisions," noting that "the public supports those as the core of legalization, and they must be the core. We can't have just an industry bill."

The New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce members include many of the licensed producers in the medical program and others in the state's current cannabis industry, including laboratories, law firms and product manufactures. Ben Lewinger, chamber director, said the group is behind HB17 because its components have the most likelihood of passage in both chambers of the Legislature. Last year's bill passed the House, he notes, then died in the Senate Judiciary Committee after lawmakers balked at expungement proposals and other factors.  While last year, the cannabis chamber group united with other members of the governor's task force, including Rep. Martinez, Lewinger said the legislation that ended up on the table didn't include what "the industry" wanted.

Asked whether the lack of social justice provisions threatens to the passage of HB17 this year, he said, "anything that isn't directly related to responsibly legalizing cannabis is a threat. I think this is the mistake in these big omnibus bills, that there is too much in there and there are pieces that are not going to work for some people. It would be a huge shame if the same thing that happened last year happens again and that is, we lose the forest for the trees."

Rep. Lujan said in a statement she was open to "and expecting to work with sponsors of other bills to collaborate" on the final version."We know the hugely negative impact of the failed war on drugs on people of color and economically disadvantaged communities and feel that restorative justice programs deserve to be considered," she said.

In the Senate, no committee face-offs are scheduled yet, but Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, has tossed in an outlier with Senate Bill 288. Pirtle described the bill Thursday morning on the KUNM Call-in Show as a more pro-law enforcement proposal. It includes a provision that would prohibit recreational dispensaries from locating within a mile of one another, plus a requirement for those storefronts to accept merchandise on consignment from other producers.

In the Thursday interview with SFR, Ivey-Soto offered a roadmap for the legalization push: The three Senate bills are temporarily "parked" in that chamber's Tax, Business and Transportation Committee while senators wait to see what emerges from Saturday's hearing and which, ultimately makes its way out of the full House in the days to come.

"At that point, we're going to have a conversation amongst all the sponsors to see if we can align everything and figure out what the structure is in a coordinated way," Ivey-Soto says, noting that several options will likely emerge after that, he says.

"One is, there's no deal and each bill gets voted on and we'll see what happens and what survives," the senator says. "That's a messier way to go about it than what we would like. So, then the issue becomes: Can we align one or more of the bills together—hopefully all the bills together—and it's entirely possible that what comes out of [Tax, Business and Transportation] is a committee substitute that combines some of the House bills or Senate bills."

A final possibility, according to Ivey-Soto, is two bills moving forward: One that simply creates an adult use program and another that addresses past criminal records for cannabis possession and other equity issues.

The latter has been a sticking point in the past, and Ivey-Soto says it's too early to tell whether it will create tension in 2021. He wants the state to address the issue of past convictions with a "legislative pardon," which would require a creative, novel, potentially over-ambitious move by the Legislature.

"If I assure you that it will not bubble up, then that's a guarantee that it will," he says, adding that, "It's a matter of preeminent concern for me. Yes, I do intend to fight for that."

However, Ivey-Soto stopped short of previous statements, in which he said doing away with old convictions was a mandatory provision in any bill for him to vote for it.

"It's also the reality when you're having conversations with others that you need to be sensitive to where they are and find a way to get people on board and into the same place, which is what we'll be doing," he says."Part of the conversation is going to be, how comprehensive is this bill going to be? Is this simply a bill about introducing an adult-use program to New Mexico and nothing more? That will guide the decisions about other provisions."

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