New Mexico advances bills to legalize recreational marijuana

SANTA FE, N.M (AP) — Legislators mounted a charge toward legalizing recreational marijuana in New Mexico, as House lawmakers on Wednesday sent an approved framework for pot sales, business licenses and taxation to the state Senate for consideration.

The House voted 38-32 to approve the Democratic-sponsored bill. Several House Democrats joined Republicans in opposition.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called a special session of the Legislature to legalize recreational cannabis for adults 21 and older after time ran out during a regular annual legislative session.

Additional vetting of the House-approved bill and a competing Republican proposal takes place before an unusual committee meeting of the entire Democrat-led Senate, leaving the door open to rewriting or merging the bills.

“The United States of America is in the midst of a sea change when it comes to this,” said Democratic state Rep. Javier Martinez of Albuquerque, who has ushered legalization bills four times to House endorsements without final approval. “This bill begins to repair the harms of prohibition.”

Martinez’s initiative was stripped of several provisions for economic support to communities ravaged by the criminalization of marijuana and tough policing, but it retains low-cost licenses for small pot producers as a measure of equity. And past drug convictions would not necessarily disqualify people from operating a cannabis business.

A companion bill would would automatically erase pot convictions and reconsider sentences for about 100 prisoners. The state Senate passed that expungement bill Wednesday in a 22-14 vote. It is expected to pass the House.

Under that 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.

A half dozen other states have moving forward with legalization of recreational marijuana in recent months. Legalization was approved by ballot initiative in Arizona, Montana, South Dakota and New Jersey during November elections. This year, legislatures in Virginia and New York have approved broad legalization.

Proponents of legalization in New Mexico hope to attract cannabis tourism from Texas and Oklahoma.

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.

People convicted of minor marijuana offenses wouldn’t need to hire a lawyer to get a clean slate, under the expungement bill.

“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 professional licensing boards could prevent hires because of convictions, including for crimes not related to pot. Employers can still ban marijuana consumption by employees under the reform proposals.

Clashing with Democrats, Republican House lawmakers insisted that legalization would increase youth access to marijuana.

State Rep. Greg Nibert of Roswell implored House Democrats to allow communities to turn away marijuana businesses. Local governments cannot ban the industry but would regulate where and when marijuana businesses can operate, under all proposed legislation.

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.