This story includes reporting from Robert Nott of the Santa Fe New Mexican and The Paper staff.
Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee met into the wee hours of Thursday morning, finally amending then passing a Democratic bill to legalize cannabis in New Mexico. That leaves two and one-half days — a lifetime in the legislature — for debate and a vote by the full senate and concurrence by the House.
The committee was the last stop to get a “do pass” vote before the legislation heads to the Senate floor for a final vote. The House of Representatives already approved House Bill 12, one of the two pieces of legislation.
The amended bill now heads to the full senate floor where it can be scheduled for a vote as early as this evening.
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Both cannabis proposals under consideration by the committee — HB 12 and Senate Bill 288 — would legalize possession of up to 2 ounces of cannabis or 16 ounces of extract for adults 21 and older, and both would allow New Mexicans to apply for a license to grow and sell cannabis.
Supporters have been anxiously waiting for word on what might happen with the legislation given how long it has taken to work its way through the Senate. Sen. Joe Cervantes, a Las Cruces Democrat who serves as chairman of the committee, alluded to that situation when he told the assembly, “I’ve seen so many versions of this bill and so many amendments. … There’s been a lot of criticism for our delay, etc., etc. and frankly I wanted to see what was going to happen with all of this.”
In fact, more amendments were proposed Wednesday night. Sen. Cliff Pirtle, a Roswell Republican who is the sponsor of SB 288, made an early move to introduce an amendment to have his revamped bill replace HB 12. Some of the new language in his amendment included a requirement to cooperate with the state’s tribes in offering cannabis production deals and to give current medical cannabis producers a nine-month “head start” to also produce recreational cannabis before any new licenses are distributed.
But HB 12 has an advantage. The House of Representatives already approved it, so it just needs an “all clear” from the Senate to head to the governor. Pirtle’s bill would have to hit the Senate floor and then return to the House of Representatives for approval, perhaps passing through at least one committee for approval first — a near impossibility given the time constraints.
Cervantes told Pirtle the odds were likely against him.
“The horses are lined up behind a different bill,” he told Pirtle. “The bill that probably has the horses to get beyond the [finish] line.”
Minutes later, the committee voted 7-4 to vote down the amendment.
HB 12 — sponsored by Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, and Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe — would task the state Regulation and Licensing Department with most of the program’s oversight, while SB 288 would set up an independent regulation commission to do that job.
HB 12 would also commit a third of of the tax revenue to fund substance abuse efforts, help communities hit hardest by drug use, and provide cannabis abstinence training for children and teens and allow for a review and expungement of criminal cases and records involving crimes related to cannabis possession and use. Those were provisions that both Cervantes and Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, voiced approval for during the discussion.
The Senate bill would place a 6 percent excise tax on cannabis sales, compared to the House bill’s 20 percent tax. Pirtle, who said his goal is to do away with the cannabis black market, said he thought it wiser to start at a low tax rate.
The Senate bill also would impose a $10-per-plant fee for anyone who wanted to grow cannabis for sale, while the House bill has an “up to $50” fee per plant. Pirtle said that would allow a small producer with limited funds a chance to get into the market.
A similar proposal to legalize recreational use of cannabis for adults in New Mexico died in the Senate Judiciary Committee last year. Stewart wondered at the time about the effort it is taking to get the program going given many other states — including neighboring Colorado — have passed such laws.