'If we can get it on the ballot, it would fly' - Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino
Sponsors Say Taxing Pot Could Ease N.M.’s Fiscal Problems
Veto by Governor Likely
BY JOHNNY VIZCAINO
With Democrats now in control of both chambers of the Roundhouse and a struggling state economy, some legislators think it’s high time New Mexico try something different – give weed a chance.
Some believe that neighboring states’ experiences with new, regulated cannabis markets have strengthened the case for legalization in New Mexico. Others maintain that the state shouldn’t be so quick to follow suit.
There are two paths to legalization. Both have been tried at the Legislature before.
The proposed Cannabis Revenue and Freedom Act would make cannabis legal for recreational adult use by the end of summer 2017. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bill McCamley, a Las Cruces Democrat, would generate a dedicated revenue stream for public education and set up funds for substance-abuse prevention and behavioral health services. Money from taxation of marijuana would also be earmarked public safety and the cash-strapped New Mexico Public Defender’s Office.
“We’ve seen this work in (other states),” McCamley said. “It’s a way to take hundreds of millions of dollars out of the hands of drug cartels, who are using that money to rape and murder people, and put that money in the hands of legitimate business folks.”
McCamley’s bill would create an 11-member Cannabis Control Board appointed by the governor that would oversee the recreational marijuana business alongside the Regulation and Licensing Department.
If adopted, McCamley’s bill would make New Mexico the first state in the union to legalize marijuana through its legislature. Other states have legalized it by way of statewide elections, referendums, or initiatives.
To pass, the bill would almost certainly require enough votes to override Gov. Susana Martinez’s expected veto. “The governor does not support legalizing drugs,” a Martinez administration spokesperson said.
A veto override would mean 47 votes in the 70-member House and 28 votes in the 42-member Senate if all members were present. However, if a quorum existed but some members were absent, only two-thirds of those present and voting would be needed to override.
A much longer path to legalization, which would bypass the governor, would be by amending the New Mexico Constitution. If approved by the Legislature, the legalization question would be placed on the general election ballot in November 2018.
If voters approved, details governing the implementation of the amendment – regulation, funding, taxation, law enforcement implications – would be determined during the 2019 legislative session.
If accomplished, New Mexico would join every other state that has legalized marijuana for adult use by way of a public vote, which makes sense in a democracy, said Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat and long-time advocate of legalization.
“If we’re going to stick our thumbs in the eye of the federal government over this, it should be with the people saying ‘let’s do it, for crying out loud,’” Ortiz y Pino said at a legislative preview event held earlier this month by Women Grow NM, a networking organization for women in the cannabis industry.
Ortiz y Pino has tried the amendment route three times. The first time, it went nowhere. Later, the bill made it through the Senate Rules Committee and then died in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Last year, it made it to the Senate floor, where it was defeated by a 24-17 vote.
“At this point, I’m ready to try almost anything to get it out,” Ortiz y Pino said.
“If we can get it on the ballot, it would fly,” he said, citing a poll commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance last year that shows voters in all quadrants of the state would favor the amendment, including 60 percent of Albuquerque voters.
Ortiz y Pino said he suspects that his Republican colleagues are afraid that putting the marijuana legalization on the ballot in 2018 would increase voter turnout among young people, who tend to be Democrats or Independents.
In the meantime, Ortiz y Pino said, “It gives us a chance to do a lot of educating of the public.”
Some Republican legislators have said they would be in favor of legalization if it were in the form of “straight up” legislation with conservative provisions, rather than in the form of a constitutional amendment.
“That really doesn’t belong anywhere in the constitution,” said Sen. Craig Brandt, a Rio Rancho Republican.
“I don’t know where I would be on an actual bill. There are some things that I would have to have,” he said. “There are a lot of issues in Colorado now that the pro-marijuana people down here are not being truthful about, in my opinion.”
New Mexico could also learn a lesson from the Colorado legislature’s decision to use tax revenue distribution from marijuana sales to repair deteriorating school buildings, Brandt said. Colorado also dedicated marijuana revenues to boosting substance abuse awareness and hiring more school-based behavioral health professionals.
And then there’s the inconvenient fact that marijuana is still an illegal controlled substance under federal law. Despite requests from two governors, the U.S. Drug Enforcement last year refused to reclassify marijuana. Currently, it is listed in the same category of illegal drugs as heroin and LSD, ecstasy and peyote.
“The federal government needs to make a decision on this subject,” Brandt said, adding that he believes the legality of marijuana should be left up to the states. “I’m a Republican, but there’s a regulatory environment that needs to be put on marijuana if we’re going to do this,” he said.
For children’s safety, cannabis products should not be sold in edible form, he said. And because the human brain is not fully developed until age 25, Brandt and other Republicans believe that should be the minimum age for legal use.
Studies in Colorado have found that levels of marijuana use among youth have remained unchanged since legalization there.
Johnny Vizcaino is an editorial intern at ABQ Free Press Weekly.