And then there were two.
A pair of cannabis legalization bills remained in play Tuesday after the sponsors of two other bills withdrew them. That left lawmakers on the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee to decide which one of the remaining two to back.
Their solution? Committee members voted to send both measures to the Senate Judiciary Committee in hopes the sponsors would find a way to compromise their way to a single bill to take to the finish line.
The end of the Legislative session — March 20 — is fast approaching.
“The clock is ticking on this year’s session,” Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque and co-sponsor of House Bill 12,, told committee members Tuesday. But he expressed confidence he and his co-sponsors could come to terms with Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell and sponsor of the competing Senate Bill 288, within a few days.
Both bills would legalize the possession of up to 2 ounces of recreational cannabis or 16 ounces of cannabis extract for adults 21 or older. They also would allow New Mexicans to apply for a license to grow and sell cannabis.
House Bill 12 would put more power in the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department to oversee the program; Senate Bill 288 would set up an independent regulation commission to do that job.
Still, significant differences remain between the two pieces of legislation. Pirtle’s bill would place a total of a 6 percent excise tax on cannabis sales. House Bill 12’s total excise tax would amount to 20 percent.
Pirtle’s bill places a $10-per-plant fee for anyone who wants to grow cannabis for sale. The other bill has an “up to $50” per-plant fee.
Either way, those already involved in the medical cannabis industry, which is legal in New Mexico, would get a few months’ head start on newcomers looking to get into the recreational cannabis business.
Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, proposed an amendment to HB 12 that would allow anyone who sells cannabis to set up a consumer use space — something akin to a cigar bar. The amendment was accepted.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham repeatedly has said she supports legalizing cannabis, so if a bill becomes law with her signature, the state would start issuing licenses later this year with a goal of allowing retailers to start selling by March 1, 2022.
One note in Tuesday’s hearing is the possibility that the state might impose a cap on plant production and-or licenses down the line if an analysis shows a lack of a cap has led to overproduction of cannabis.
Originally, three out of four of the bills had no caps. But critics say a lack of caps could lead to overproduction or an imbalance in the industry that could be difficult to right.
“You open the doors and you have no limit on how much any individual producer can produce, and oversupply will immediately tank the market,” said Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, who backed an unsuccessful effort to legalize recreational cannabis in last year’s session.
Though cannabis tax revenue could top $100 million in a few years, according to several studies, none of the sponsors said that was the main reason they were pushing the legislation.
Pirtle said the purpose of his bill is to do away with the black market for cannabis. Martinez said House Bill 12 is in response to the country’s failure to win the war on drugs.
The legislation’s chance at success in the Senate Judiciary Committee is unclear. That’s where Ortiz y Pino’s bill died last year.
That committee’s chairman, Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, recently said in an interview that legalizing cannabis will not help New Mexico’s battle with drug addiction.
He said he has “a great deal of reservation about New Mexico being ready to have cannabis for sale on every street corner … this is a big money deal.”