With just hours to go before the start of a special session focused on legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, members of both political parties say a difficult — if not excruciating — next few days may be in the works for the Legislature.
Less than 24 hours before the session was set to convene at noon Tuesday, many state senators said they had not been able to review a current version of the legislation, which was still being reworked Monday evening.
“I haven’t seen the bill,” Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said Monday as he was planning to leave McKinley County to drive to Santa Fe. “They were supposed to send us a copy of it today. I really don’t know what it’s going to look like. Every time I went to read one [a cannabis bill] during the session, every four hours they had a different bill.”
Muñoz’s frustration was echoed by a number of other lawmakers from both parties, including Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. During the regular session, Cervantes questioned a number of legal and language issues with a key piece of cannabis legislation, House Bill 12.
Cervantes on Monday tweeted he had heard there was a reworked version of the bill that addresses many of the Judiciary Committee’s concerns. In an interview, he said he was expecting to see a final draft Monday night, adding Linda Trujillo, the head of the state Regulation and Licensing Department, told him “the coming version of the bill should reflect what we wanted in Judiciary.”
But Cervantes added: “Nobody is saying the bill is ready and should be passed from top to bottom.”
Trujillo did not return a call seeking comment.
Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe and a co-sponsor of House Bill 12, said any substantive changes to the legislation were made as the bill was ready to be debated on the Senate floor — its last stop — the day before the session ended 10 days ago.
“Not a lot is changing from the previous bill,” Romero said Monday. “We’ve been working through the process, going through it line by line. If we can improve it, we have been. You are not seeing any big changes from the previous iteration.”
Still, Romero said a component of the original bill, allowing expungement of criminal records and charges for cannabis-related crimes, has been moved into a new bill which will be vetted and debated separately during the special session.
Some lawmakers, including Senate Republicans, decried what they say is behind-the-scenes maneuvering with the legislation in the days leading up to the special session.
“Oh, no, we haven’t seen the bill,” said Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen and Senate minority leader. “Nor has any member of the public.”
Romero said some of the concerns about the bill are “mostly political posturing.”
Legalizing recreational cannabis for adults 21 and over was a nagging piece of unfinished business from the 60-day session. Though the issue was a priority for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and had overwhelming support in the House, it stalled earlier this month, forcing the governor to call for a special session.
The battle lines are familiar: Advocates for legalization say it will do away with the illicit market for cannabis and build a new revenue source for a state that needs new streams of cash. Critics question the social and health-related price tag, particularly in a state plagued by drug and alcohol addiction.
Some legislators speculated the special session, which will cost taxpayers $50,000 a day, has the potential for an impasse.
“What I see happening during this special session is a complete nuclear meltdown,” said Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque.
A proponent of legalizing recreational cannabis, Candelaria pushed one of at least five competing bills introduced during the regular session. He said he would prefer the Legislature deal with cannabis later this year, when a special session on redistricting is planned.
Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell and sponsor of another competing bill during the regular session, introduced an updated version of his bill late last week, though it seemed unlikely to get a hearing during the special session. He said he took part in a discussion with Romero, Trujillo and a member of Lujan Grisham’s staff Saturday.
Governor’s Office spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett wrote in an email Monday that some of Pirtle’s ideas will be incorporated into HB 12 — including a clause to expand training for law enforcement personnel to detect drug use, including cannabis, in motorists and others.
“The governor’s priority has been and remains a comprehensive body of law that enacts a well-regulated and safe legalized adult-use cannabis industry as well as one that addresses the attendant social justice concerns,” she wrote.
She added while lawmakers are free to complain about how the bill is being worked out, “that’s what negotiation is, and the process of finalizing the details of legislation is certainly not something they are unfamiliar with.”
Other senators who have been more closely involved in the process, like Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, say it’s unfair for lawmakers to complain they have no idea what is going on with the legislation since it received plenty of attention during the regular session.
Ortiz y Pino said it’s “ludicrous” for legislators to say they are not familiar with the legislation.
He said HB 12 is “going to be very good. Whether it passes or not is an issue” — noting if seven or more Democrats join Republicans in the 42-member Senate to vote against the legislation, it will fail.
At least two Democratic senators — Candelaria and Shannon Pinto of Gallup — said Monday they will not support the legislation.
Sen. Pete Campos, D-Las Vegas, said he has been contemplating the ramifications of legalizing recreational cannabis for some time.
“It all weighs pretty heavy on my mind,” Campos said Monday. “This is one of the biggest decisions we are making since we began to deal with legalizing casino-style gambling [in the 1990s]. … The effects our decisions will have over the next several days will definitely be life-lasting for our population. So we have to make sure we are doing it right.”
Campos predicted the bill will pass in the Senate. Its success is almost ensured in the House of Representatives, which voted almost entirely along party lines to support legalization during the regular session. Democrats outnumber Republicans there by an almost 2-to-1 margin.
Asked if he thought the legislation might fail during the special session, Cervantes said it’s “possible.”
“If I were betting, I would bet there’s going to be something,” he said. “I think the reasoning is, ‘Let’s pass something and fix it down the line.’ Which I think is a mistake.”