New Mexico weighs automated expungement of pot offenses

SANTA FE, N.M (AP) — New Mexico would automatically erase pot convictions and reconsider sentences for about 100 prisoners as legislators advance a package of bills to legalizing recreational marijuana.

A Senate panel advanced the expungement bill Tuesday evening toward a Senate floor vote, after hours of discussion and revisions.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called a special session of the Legislature to legalize recreational cannabis for adults 21 and older. Automated expungement and pardon procedures are contingent on legislative approval of a framework for legal sales and taxation of recreational cannabis.

Neighboring states Colorado and Arizona have legalized recreational marijuana, and proponents of legalization in New Mexico hope to attract cannabis tourism from Texas and Oklahoma.

Under New Mexico’s Democrat-sponsored proposal, people serving jail time for marijuana-related offenses would have their cases reviewed by corrections officials within a month of the bill going into effect. State agencies have roughly a year to identify, vet and expunge minor cannabis convictions from legal records and background checks.

Legalization efforts stumbled during the annual legislative session that ended March 20, despite an array of support. Lujan Grisham has hailed the industry’s potential to create jobs and bring a stable new source of revenue.

Proposals would eliminate taxes on medical marijuana and impose an initial excise tax on recreational pot sales of 12% that would rise to 18% over time. That’s on top of current gross receipts on sales that range from roughly 5% to 9%.

Possession of up to 2 ounces (57 grams) of marijuana would cease to be a crime, and people would be allowed six plants at home — or up to 12 per household.

Expungement provisions wouldn’t apply to people convicted of trafficking large quantities of marijuana.

People convicted of minor marijuana offenses wouldn’t need to hire a lawyer to get a clean slate.

“We don’t want to put a burden on the individual to file the lawsuit, to pay the filing fee to hire a lawyer to get rid of something from the record that we as a state … are saying is no longer a crime,” said bill sponsor Sen. Katy Duhigg, D-Albuquerque.

Her bill also limits the extent to which employers and licensing boards could prevent hires due to convictions. Employers can still ban marijuana consumption by employees under the reform proposals.

“You can (already) prohibit your employees from drinking alcohol 24/7,” said state Rep. Antonio Maestas, D-Albuquerque, on the House floor, where he voiced support for the Cannabis Regulation Act.

Deliberations touched on lingering concerns about public health and marijuana use.

The regulatory framework bill from state Rep. Javier Martínez of Albuquerque would create licensed “cannabis consumption areas” that might double as entertainment venues — and alleviate legal problems for marijuana users in federally subsidized housing or other circumstances where marijuana use is restricted.

Public health groups including the American Heart Association said the consumption areas could undermine hard-fought efforts to ensure clean indoor air by state statute and expose cannabis workers to contaminates in second-hand marijuana smoke or vapor.

“We strongly encourage this body to reconsider and abolish any cannabis consumption areas in the bill,” said Mahesh Sita, on behalf of the association.

Providing marijuana to children would remain a felony, and businesses that sell to people under 21 risk license suspension or revocation.

New Mexico legislators in the Republican minority are calling the special session an inappropriate public expense in the midst of the pandemic — and an affront to Christians in the midst of Holy Week celebrations that precede Easter.

Republican Rep. James Strickler of Farmington said Tuesday that “a majority of New Mexicans are not that fired up about recreational marijuana.”

GOP Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell has introduced a competing proposal for regulating recreational marijuana that emphasizes low taxes.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.