The Land of Enchantment has a history of being progressive in its stance on cannabis legalization. We have had a meandering history to get to the point where legalization is within reach. Cannabis has been used medicinally in the state since 1978, when New Mexico became the first state in the U.S. to allow it for medical use. As legislators look at legalizing recreational cannabis this session, it is important to remember over 75 percent of New Mexicans favor legalization. And as to the bottom line: The state could sure use the estimated 100 million dollar a year boost recreational cannabis would give its coffers.
In 1978 the House Memorial 53 Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act allowed cannabis consumption through a research program approved by the Food and Drug Administration using cannabis supplied by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The bill was inspired by and urged on by cancer patient Lynn Pierson, who found relief using cannabis and implored state lawmakers to be allowed to use the drug. Prior to the final go-ahead by the federal government of the program, Pierson died due to his illness. Through the Lynn Pierson Therapeutic Research Program (named in honor of Pierson after his death), approximately 250 cancer patients received cannabis or THC between 1978 and 1986.
In 1999 Republican Governor Gary Johnson set off a large dust devil when he endorsed cannabis legalization. Johnson said the drug’s dangers had been significantly exaggerated. He became the highest-ranking elected official in the country to endorse such a position. His comments were condemned by various law enforcement officials, the lieutenant governor and the Republican Party. Johnson continued to advocate for legalization as he finished out his second term. In a debate he comically faked a heart attack from marijuana to prove a point.
In April 2007 Senate Bill 523 passed the Senate by a vote of 32–3 and the House by a vote of 36–31, making New Mexico the 12th state legalizing medical cannabis use and the fourth to do so through an act of state legislature. Senate Bill 523, the “Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act,” allowed the use of cannabis, with a physician’s recommendation, for treatment of certain medical conditions such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and some spinal-cord injuries. The list of qualifying conditions is continually expanding, and allowance for cultivation of cannabis by patients was added.
In March 2019 House Bill 356 was approved by the House of Representatives by a 36–34 vote. The bill sought to legalize the recreational use of cannabis and establish a system of distribution for cannabis through state-run dispensaries. The bill passed the House and ground to a halt in the Senate Finance Committee. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, a strong advocate for legalization of cannabis, announced that she would add the issue to the legislative agenda for 2020.
In June 2019 Lujan Grisham created the Cannabis Legalization Working Group to determine the best path forward for legalization. The group released a report with recommendations in October 2019. Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis, chair of the group, said they participated in more than 30 hours of public meetings and reviewed over 200 pages of public comment across the state, exploring every aspect of legalization. “As our report makes clear, New Mexico can and should learn from missteps in other states, and we have the ingenuity, talent and healthy level of skepticism required to get it right,” Davis said.
Despite the group’s work, the proposal to legalize cannabis failed early in the 2020 session. Legalization is on the table again for the 2021 session, in at least two separate bills. The New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce will put forth one of those bills, and a lot of people are waiting with bated breath to see if this time it’s a winner. One very important part of that bill would be the push to keep cannabis businesses mostly legal. Legalization will continue to have a seat at the table until approved. Gov. Lujan Grisham has said she will keep pushing for a safe and comprehensive legalization measure, even if it means changing the state Constitution.