Moving Along

Cannabis proposals are already making tracks in the special session

Keeping score on what's happening with cannabis legislation in New Mexico's special legislative session requires one to be in several places at the same time.

Tuesday at noon, lawmakers buckled down for an undetermined number of days that lay ahead before adjournment as they reconsider adult use marijuana— legalization that failed to pass in the recent 60-day session.

As expected, three bills are on the table, two of which passed their first committee hearings by early Tuesday night. As the night dragged on, the Senate floor began debate around 9:45 pm and at the same time, a second House committee convened.

Those who followed the debate during the regular session noted a key change: Provisions in the bill that nearly crossed the legislative finish line allowing for the automatic wiping of past cannabis possession charges and convictions have been stripped out and offered in a standalone bill.

After hours of debate and several amendments, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed Senate Bill 2 on expungement with a 6-3, party-line vote Tuesday evening, with the Republicans on that committee against.

House Bill 2 is the new version of House Bill 12, the measure that passed the House and two key Senate committees during the regular session. Sens. Katy Duhigg and Linda Lopez are listed as co-sponsors along with fellow Albuquerque Democratic Reps. Javier Martinez and Deborah Armstrong and Andrea Romero, of Santa Fe.

The House Taxation and Revenue Committee issued a do-pass on a 7-4 party line vote, but not before it amended the measure to hike its excise tax over time.  The amendment calls for an initial 12% tax to increase by 1% each year from 2025 to a maximum of 18% in 2030. Sales would also be subject to local gross receipts taxes, making the highest tax rates in the state in the neighborhood of 26.5%. Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said the amendment proposed by Los Alamos Democrat and Committee Chair Christine Chandler was "a reasonable change that is likely to give us significant additional resources."

The measure creates a new division within the state Regulation and Licensing Department and offers 10 different types of cannabis licenses that range from large production to research and manufacturing. It allows for a "head start" for new "microbusinesses," and permits the state to evaluate market conditions and limit production through 2025. Sales would begin no later than April 2022.

The expungement bill at Senate Judiciary drew significant debate. The proposal is co-sponsored by a similar crowd: Duhigg and Lopez along with Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino plus Reps. Martinez and Romero.

Among the sticking points: The state attorney general would have had significant authority under the proposed expungement scheme, but a series of late amendments nixed that idea; and the Department of Public Safety would be responsible for scanning vast databases to identify people who are eligible to have their records wiped.

It's not clear how many people could benefit—through access to more jobs, federal student loans, housing and more—from expungement. That's because the state doesn't organize criminal records in a way that would be searchable.

Ortiz y Pino pointed out that between January and June 2018, state law enforcement agencies arrested about 2,200 people on suspicion of possessing less than an ounce of cannabis—which would no longer be a crime if HB 2 passes. Authorities wrote another 2,000 citations for similar offenses.

"This is not a minor issue," said Ortiz y Pino, who has long pushed for adult-use legalization.

Some of the longtime legislative champions of legal cannabis, including Rep. Martinez, have said the entire push for legalization is hollow without the expungement piece—they see it as righting the wrongs of the nation's long-running drug war.

After grinding through 10 amendments, the committee voted 6-3—Republicans Cliff Pirtle, Greg Baca and Mark Moores giving the thumbs-down—to pass the bill, setting up a likely Senate floor vote in the next day or two. (Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth said just before 10:30 pm that the Senate will take up SB 2 on Wednesday morning.)

Judiciary members did not address the burden their measure would place on DPS, and it is not clear whether it will emerge as a problem spot in the full Senate or in the other chamber.

Meanwhile, Sen. Pirtle, R-Roswell, introduced what he's characterized as an alternative proposal to the one that has vast support among Democrats and a continuation of his Senate Bill 288 from the regular session. Senate Bill 3 has yet to receive committee assignments.

The House reconvened just before 7 pm, accepting the tax committee report on HB 2 and adopted an appropriation "feed" bill for $243,000 to pay for the special session and also to send $6.9 million from the general fund to public safety, regulatory agencies and the courts contingent on the passage of cannabis legalization regulations.

The Senate voted  25-12 in favor of the feed bill as well, after a lengthy floor debate that concluded shortly before 10:30 pm. The House Judiciary debated until nearly 1:30 am Wednesday, at which time it recommended a do-pass. The House is set to reconvene at 9 am
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