If New Mexico’s Legislators Finally Legalize Pot, Here’s How It Will Happen
Will Efforts to Legalize Recreational Marijuana Go Up In Smoke?
Originally published by The Paper on February 4th, 2021.
The state senate looks a lot different these days with more women and queer members than ever and the chamber’s first Black member winning election to the body in 2020 – and that’s a good thing for the many New Mexicans who are increasingly frustrated over the legislature’s inability to take action on legalizing recreational cannabis.
It may appear that in years past, lawmakers have squandered the opportunity to tap into tax revenue that legal recreational cannabis would provide for the state, and perhaps they have. However, this year seems to be different.
The Paper. is committed to helping our readers to fully understand the nuance of what’s happening up in Santa Fe for the next two months at the Roundhouse in Santa Fe. Here’s a brief history and look-ahead at efforts to legalize pot in the state.
But first, a quick reminder of how a piece of legislation becomes law:
A little history: Going back to the simpler times that were 2015, then-Representative Bill McCamley (D-Las Cruces) introduced the Cannabis Revenue & Freedom Act. True to the glacial pace that major legislation moves, the bill was destined to be a conversation starter. McCamley, who eventually became the secretary of the Workforce Solutions Department, was honored by his colleagues for his efforts on this issue in 2019.
Unfortunately, that legislation and other iterations in the following years stood almost no chance of passage, vexing sponsors over the years like McCamley, Rep. Javier Martínez (D-Albuquerque), and Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino (D-Albuquerque).
A new hope: Things really started smoking with the election of the ever-energetic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham–along with the departure of Governor Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor.
The new governor gave early signals that she would be making a real effort at getting a cannabis bill to her desk and her famous pen. This administration seems to be taking the fight to legalize recreational cannabis quite seriously while protecting the medical marijuana program in a way that is equitable to populations who have been victims of the war on drugs.
In 2019 Lujan Grisham also appointed a bipartisan task force to study the issue and recommend a path toward legalization. That group of lawmakers, stakeholders, patients, and business owners came together over the course of the first year of the governor’s first term, hoping to build the legislative momentum behind an as-close-to-consensus-as-you-can-get bill. (Full disclosure: The Paper‘s publisher, Pat Davis, was appointed by the governor to lead that group).
Unfortunately, the measure didn’t move past the Senate Judiciary Committee, and likely would not have passed the senate floor. Advocates for cannabis in the 2020 election hoped to end the policy bottleneck in the upper chamber.
Stars aligned: With the 2020 election, voters sent a refreshed (read: refreshing) crop to the senate, upending centrist Democrats’ control of the chamber. Newly installed Senate President Pro-Tempore Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque) jumped at the opportunity to reconstitute the senate’s committee makeup. Because it appears that there are more votes in the Senate, there are new pathways to legalization which have opened.
And after an economically devastating year for businesses and local government alike, many opponents are taking a new look at the local jobs and tax revenue legalization could create. The governor’s legalization group estimates that legalization could create 11,000 in-state jobs from growers to retailers to state inspectors. Add that to the more than $100 million in new tax revenue it could add and there are two good reasons to take a new look in a pandemic world.
The new path to legalization.
Let’s preview what may happen this year. In 2020, the governor’s preferred bill was assigned to be heard by three committees in the senate: Public Affairs, Judiciary, and Finance.
Formerly known as Public Affairs, the new Health & Public Affairs Committee is the likely first stop for any cannabis legislation. With only three republicans to the committee’s five Democrats, legalization should fly through on a party-line vote. It will be interesting to see how the East Mountain’s Senator Gregg Schmedes (R), an ear, nose, and throat doctor (and known anti-masker), will vote. He voted against decriminalizing cannabis for personal use in 2019.
Next is likely to be the Senate Judiciary Committee, last year’s resting place for your legal high. Things start getting topsy turvy in this committee. Ranking Member (and millennial) Sen. Cliff Pirtle (R-Roswell) and Sen. Mark Moores (R-Bernalillo) both lean libertarian and have introduced their own versions of legalization bills in previous sessions (remember state-run stores!). There is potential for both of these members to vote for the bill in committee. Even though the chairman, Sen. Joseph Cervantes (D-Las Cruces), seems unlikely to vote in favor, if a majority of his members want to hold a hearing he will likely bring the bill up for a hearing and vote. With 9 members in total, it will take 5 “yes” votes to move forward.
Of Democratic senators on the committee, Bill O’Neill, Linda Lopez and Mimi Stewart have all voted for legalization before. Newly-elected Senator Katy Duhigg (D-Albuquerque) campaigned in support of legalization so she makes four. So whose vote is number five? Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto (D-Albuquerque) has voted for legalization in the past and this session he is widely expected to introduce his own bill. Ivey-Soto’s support is key. If there are multiple legalization bills he could force senators to only support his legislation or lead an effort to form a compromise that can move through this important committee.
Whether a compromise emerges to get seven supporters (5 Dems and 2 libertarian Republicans) or just squeak out with five Dems, this is the first year a legalization bill could move beyond the Judiciary Committee, sending the bill to Senate Finance.
Readers have probably heard quite a bit about Senate Finance. Formerly led by John Arthur Smith (D-Deming) who wielded the gavel artfully to avoid tough votes on legalization, early childhood funding and almost all new spending.
The committee has new leadership after the Deming area senator lost the 2020 primary election. Sen. George Munoz (D-Gallup) is the new chair, flanked by veteran and new members alike. It is still to be seen how the centrist Democrat will conduct the business of the committee, but legalization advocates should know that President Pro-Tem Stewart has stacked this committee with votes for this and many other progressive issues. There are four Republicans for the seven Democrats on the committee. Elections matter.
But, but, but… President Pro-Tempore Mimi Stewart is making a big change to committee structures to match the big changes in membership. The former Corporations Committee is now the Tax, Business and Transportation Committee. If Majority Leader Peter Wirth (D-Santa Fe) determines that legalization is a tax issue, not a finance (budget) one, he could assign it to the new committee and skip finance all-together.
In the Tax, etc. committee, Democrats outnumber Republicans 7-4 and there are a few likely paths to the six vote majority needed to pass the committee.
Even more indicative of the importance of elections, the senate floor now has 15 Republicans and 27 Democrats. That means up to five Democrats can peel away from voting for legalization without jeopardizing passage.
In the State House last year, the house version of the Senate bill received two committee assignments from Speaker Brian Egolf (D) and legalization has passed the House before. The same is likely to happen this year if the Senate bill can get there in time.
So, is this the year?
A new poll found that 72 percent of New Mexicans support legalization. And Governor Lujan Grisham continues to promote legalization as a game-changer for our economy. If she makes it a priority and leans on Democrats to pass, it could.
But the devil is in the details, as they say. Last year’s legalization workgroup recommended using tax proceeds to invest in communities over-represented in those harmed by the war on drugs. Progressives say they would not support any bill without those provisions but given that the session has just 60 days, legalization proponents worry that debates over those provisions could stall the bill.
State Representative Javier Martinez (D-Albuquerque) says New Mexico should not abandon those goals in favor of quick passage. “We are interested in doing it the right way, so that our model can actually be a model for the rest of the country. We’ve learned the lessons of Colorado; we’ve learned the lessons of California—two states that legalized through ballot initiative. Quite frankly there are a lot of gaps in their models. Particularly with regard to medical and racial equity. We do not want to make those mistakes ourselves,” he told The Paper. late last year.
Emily Kaltenbach, state director for The Drug Policy Alliance recently wrote in The Paper.that voters should demand those provisions be included. “Among Democratic voters, support is near-universal, at 94 percent. Independents support legalization at 78 percent. And when equity provisions, such as reinvesting back into communities most harmed by prohibition or allowing equity in the cannabis market, are added to the question, support increases—for example, Independent support increases to an astonishing 93% with equity provisions intact,” she writes.
Meanwhile, the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce is pushing its own version of a bill that is not expected to mandate how legislators invest new tax revenue. This proposal, and perhaps others from industry groups and existing medical cannabis companies, would prefer to legalize now and leave questions about tax investments for a future legislature.
The bottom line is that this is the first year there is a truly viable route to the finish line, and there may be more than one. It all depends on the state senate and which committees get the referral.
But first, we need a bill. As of Friday afternoon, no legalization bills had been introduced for the 2021 session. That, however, has not stopped New Mexicans from weighing in.