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The Long Game on Pot

The Long Game on Pot

The battle to legalize pot is not going away in New Mexico. Far from it. But it may last much longer than we think.

Despite gaining momentum elsewhere, legalizing recreational marijuana use in New Mexico still seems a far-off prospect. A constitutional amendment that would send the issue to the voters to decide has been introduced in the past and failed to win over the Legislature. We will likely see it again in the 2016 legislative session and with a similar result.

Supporters argue that polling shows about 50 percent of the state’s registered voters would go for a Colorado type marijuana law. But New Mexico is not Colorado, so while polling shows a huge majority of registered voters between the ages of 18 to 34 favor legalization, we think they are going to have to wait longer than they expect to legally light their joints.

The state Republican Party was torn apart over legalizing marijuana when GOP Gov. Gary Johnson proposed it in the late 1990s. Fast forward to today and there is quiet support among some Rs for softening the marijuana laws but none of them publicly advocate such legislation and Gov. Martinez has said she is flatly opposed. While a constitutional amendment needs approval of the legislature but not the Governor, her opposition keeps the lid – to use a bad pun – on the legalization movement.

Then there is the state’s massive substance abuse problem that has us leading the nation or close to it in alcohol abuse and opioid overdoses. A recent study found 12.5 out of 100,000 New Mexicans between 12 and 25 suffered an opioid overdose in 2011-2013. That’s double from ten years ago. We are one of only three states with such a high rate. Officials do think overdoses have begun to decline recently. Still, it’s not a big leap to speculate that the state’s historic drug abuse problem could be dampening the drive to legalize pot even though marijuana is not classified as a dangerous drug.

The social problems of alcohol abuse were front and center yet again in late November when three Albuquerque twenty-somethings had their lives snuffed out by what police called an “extremely intoxicated” 23 year old. It’s those kind of incidents which happen with deadly regularity in New Mexico that sets us apart from Colorado and helps stall the legalization movement.

Then there’s the argument that the state would rake in millions in tax revenue from legal marijuana. That’s true. Colorado took in about $70 million from pot taxes in its most recently completed fiscal year. If New Mexico sold half of what it did – a reasonable estimate given our population – and we had the same tax structure as our neighbor to the north, that would mean tax revenue of about $35 million. That’s nothing to sneeze at it but in the scope of a state budget of $6.2 billion it is not a game changer.

The battle to legalize pot is not going away in New Mexico. Far from it. But it may last much longer than we think. You’ve heard about how New Mexico, once one of the youngest states in the nation, is getting more gray as many of its young leave to seek higher paying jobs not available here. It seems our legislators are following that trend, not leaving here, but getting a lot more gray.

Sen. John Pinto, a Democrat who has represented much of the Four Corners area in Santa Fe since 1977, will turn 91 this month. If he seeks re-election next year, he would be 96 when he finishes his four-year term in 2020, making him one of the oldest legislators in the nation’s history. Pinto has not yet announced whether he will seek another term.

Then there is Northern New Mexico Democrat State Rep. Nick Salazar, now 86 and serving since 1974. He is weighing a bid for yet another two-year term. He has a fellow octogenarian in the Senate. Mary Kay Papen is 83 and all signs point to her seeking re-election in 2016.

The old saying has it that “youth must be served.” Maybe so, but in the case of certain legislative seats the youthful, would-be replacements are becoming seniors as they wait their turn.

Joe Monahan is a veteran of New Mexico politics. His daily blog can be found at joemonahan.com

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Dennis Domrzalski is managing editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.

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