The New Mexico Legislature gave the green light to the legalization of marijuana Wednesday night.
Both the Senate and House of Representatives approved the controversial bill in a short but fiery special session, sending the legislation to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has promised to sign it and start New Mexico on the road to a new industry that could provide tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue — and, opponents warned, still-unknown pitfalls that could trouble the state for years to come.
The Senate voted 22-15 late Wednesday, mostly along party lines, to approve House Bill 2, which would legalize cannabis for adults 21 and over. The bill then rocketed back to the House for a quick vote of concurrence, and legislation that had flummoxed the Legislature throughout a recently completed 60-day session and prompted Lujan Grisham to call the special session in the first place was finally put to rest.
“This is a significant victory for New Mexico,” the governor said in a statement. “Workers will benefit from the opportunity to build careers in this new economy. Entrepreneurs will benefit from the opportunity to create lucrative new enterprises. The state and local governments will benefit from the additional revenue. Consumers will benefit from the standardization and regulation that comes with a bona fide industry. And those who have been harmed by this country’s failed war on drugs, disproportionately communities of color, will benefit from our state’s smart, fair and equitable new approach to past low-level convictions.”
The session centered on House Bill 2, the centerpiece of the legalization effort.
The bill moved forward earlier Wednesday after a Senate committee made up of all 42 members voted to favor it over a competing bill, introduced by Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, following a 4½-hour hearing.
Pirtle’s bill called for a lower excise tax and offered small-business owners a more affordable path into the industry based on a sliding-scale licensing fee, based on the size of the production or sales business.
His proposal didn’t win over members of the Senate, who voted 36-6 against it after moving HB 2 on to the Senate floor for that final vote.
When it came time for that floor vote, at about 8:15 p.m. Wednesday, Pirtle — who earlier in the day described himself as a “one-man wolf pack” ready to do battle for his bill until the end — was the only one to speak.
Standing by his desk, full of proposed amendments he was ready to introduce to slow down the progress or change HB 2, he looked at the time and said, “I could be home by midnight, kiss my beautiful children, because that’s what’s important.”
But he blasted the governor and Democratic lawmakers for not working with him in a bipartisan fashion, saying he believed some legislators were “pushed, pressed, put in a corner to vote a certain way.”
Republicans in both the House and Senate complained their input was not heard by Democrats, who hold overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate.
Even some Democrats seemed to give the legislation the cold shoulder despite voting for it.
“This bill is not ready, this policy is not ready, New Mexico is not ready,” said Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, expressing concern legalization will do more harm than good in a state struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.
Cervantes questioned much of the legal language in the bill during a committee hearing, and he said Wednesday the bill still has serious problems and includes provisions that would encourage teens to smoke marijuana because there are almost no penalties in place in the bill to prevent that.
Earlier Wednesday, the Senate voted to include yet another amendment to the bill, one prohibiting any members of the Legislature from getting involved in the cannabis industry until at least 2025.
That proposal led to a sometimes testy exchange of words as the issue of conflict of interest — a common theme during the regular session — came to the forefront of the debate.
Several Republican senators, including Mark Moores of Albuquerque, urged others to support the amendment, citing the case of former state Sen. Phil Greigo, a Democrat convicted in a criminal case tied to a $50,000 broker’s fee he collected after facilitating legislation that authorized the sale of state property to a downtown Santa Fe hotel.
Moores asked the main sponsor of HB 2, Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, if he had any interests tied to cannabis legalization.
“I do not,” Martínez said. “And don’t plan on any in the future.”
Martínez said the conflict-of-interest question should be posed to all members of the Legislature, including Moores.
Moores responded that he had no conflict of interest.
The House of Representatives had already approved HB 2 by a vote of 38-32 earlier in the day.
Martínez told the House the bill had new provisions, including sections aimed at preventing children and young adults under 21 from accessing cannabis, as well as more specific guidelines on licensing procedures.
“It’s a brand-new industry,” Martínez said as he introduced the bill on the House floor. “We want to make sure it gets off the ground, that it succeeds, that it is tightly regulated.”
The measure underwent significant changes after Martínez and other sponsors introduced a version in the regular legislative session, which ended March 20. They cleaned up language that would have allowed adults to possess “at least” 2 ounces of cannabis outside their homes rather than “up to” 2 ounces, as they had intended.
Language indicating parents could legally provide cannabis to children under 21 also was removed.
Among the new provisions to prevent underage use of cannabis is a clause imposing fines of up to $10,000 on any establishment that sells cannabis to someone under 21. Businesses also could have their licenses revoked or suspended for selling to minors.
In addition, cannabis businesses would not be permitted to advertise on television and radio stations, and they could not use cartoon characters or images of people who look younger than 21 in any marketing efforts.
Adults over 21 could grow their own plants for personal use — six plants for an individual or up to 12 for a household with more than one adult. The measure also sets up a licensing system to allow businesses to manufacture, sell and transport cannabis, or to operate a cannabis testing or research laboratory.
And a new provision would give counties and municipalities some control in limiting the density of cannabis businesses and their location in relation to schools and day care centers. The bill does not allow local governments to prohibit cannabis operations or use in their areas, however.
HB 2 also includes a plant cap provision that was not included in the original provision. That cap, which has yet to be set, would last at least through 2025 while the state studied the market to see if there was too much — or too little — cannabis being produced.
Previous legislative efforts to legalize recreational cannabis in the state have failed, but the initiative gained traction this year, particularly as more states — including neighboring Colorado and Arizona — have legalized cannabis.
Texas and Mexico are contemplating similar measures. New York just approved legalizing recreational cannabis as well.
The House also took time Wednesday night to concur with changes made to Senate Bill 1, which would allow 50 percent of some state and local gross receipts tax from large Local Economic Development Act projects of $350 million or more to be placed in a fund to help draw more of those large projects to the state. That bill, already approved by the Senate, also goes to the governor’s desk for a signature.