At least two competing proposals are taking shape as New Mexico lawmakers attempt to strike a deal on marijuana legalization during a special legislative session that begins on Tuesday.
Sponsors of HB 12, which passed the House of Representatives but ultimately stalled on the Senate floor during the final hours of the regular session, have been scrambling to retool that measure into a form they hope can win support from both chambers.
“We are working on our bill,” Rep. Javier Martínez (D) told Marijuana Moment in an interview on Friday. “I’ve been meeting with the governor’s office all week—myself, my cosponsors on the House side and cosponsors on the Senate side.”
Some reports suggest individual provisions of the plan, such as the automatic expungement of past cannabis convictions, will spin off into separate legislation, potentially creating several bills for lawmakers to consider.
Meanwhile Sen. Cliff Pirtle (R), whose own legalization bill, SB 288, failed to make it out of committee during the regular session, unveiled a separate proposal for the special session late last week.
“I thought it important to get out to the public because it is kind of a rushed special session,” he told Marijuana Moment.
Pirtle said that while he was scheduled to meet with the governor’s office over the weekend, he has felt largely left out of the ongoing negotiations. “I really thought I would have more of a hands-on role at this point,” he said Friday. “I have yet to see a version from the governor’s office or the House members.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), who supports legalization, signaled the need for a special session as it became clear that HB 12 was unlikely to pass the Democrat-controlled Senate in its current form. “It’s important enough and we’re close enough that the governor firmly believes it will be worth an extra effort to close the deal,” her office said in a statement at the time. She officially called the special session late last week.
Martínez declined to discuss details of the forthcoming proposal but said the group was working off an amended version of HB 12, a wide-ranging piece of legislation that allows adult use and home cultivation of marijuana, establishes a legal market and creates state funds to reinvest money into communities most harmed by the war on drugs.
“We expect to have our bill ready in the next couple days,” he said. “I really can’t give you a date.”
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Critics of HB 12, including Pirtle and moderate Democrats skeptical of legalization, such as Senate Judiciary Chair Joe Cervantes, have disparaged it as poorly written and overly complicated, despite input from state-sanctioned workgroups.
A sticking point for some critics has been the measure’s social equity provisions. “It seems like the focus of House Bill 12 is social justice and not how to properly regulate cannabis,” Pirtle told Marijuana Moment last month. He suggested lawmakers take up equity in separate legislation rather than interweave it into the cannabis bill.
One expected change to the legalization proposal for the special session would do exactly that. HB 12 originally included language that would expunge past cannabis convictions and allow people with past convictions to get a business license in the legal industry—an attempt at addressing the past harms of the drug war, which have fallen disproportionately on Black, brown and Indigenous communities.
Rep. Andrea Romero (D), a cosponsor of HB 12, told the Santa Fe New Mexican last week that those provisions will be removed for the special session and repackaged in separate legislation.
Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokesperson for the governor, told the paper the matters were still being discussed.
“Those social justice issues are very important, but whether they are included in the bill or taken up as a standalone concurrent measure is a subject of ongoing conversation,” she said. “But ultimately whether it’s one bill or five or 10, the governor’s priority is a comprehensive body of law that legalizes adult-use cannabis in a safe way while attending to the social justice components that are part a well-rounded legalization effort.”
Sackett did not respond to a separate emailed request for comment last week from Marijuana Moment.
Other lawmakers have since confirmed that the proposal will indeed be split into two measures: one containing legalization, and the other focusing on social justice provisions such as expungement and equity licensing.
Rep. Macaela Lara Cadena (D), vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, told the Las Cruces Sun News after a Democratic caucus meeting on Sunday that the legalization bill will begin in the House during this week’s special session, with the expungement bill starting its path in the Senate.
Cervantes told the paper that decoupling the social equity provisions from the legalization proposal gives politicians more options. “You can understand how some legislators might vote for the licensing bill, but be against criminal justice reforms; and conversely, some vote [for] the criminal justice reforms and against the licensing bill,” he said. “There are some Republicans who have said they support the principle of legalization, but may have problems expunging records and letting people out of jail.”
Pirtle described his new proposal, which does not contain expungement provisions, as a compromise with the House bill’s backers, saying its “basically 288 but it incorporates some of the concerns from the HB 12 folks,” specifically regarding how the new market would be regulated. Rather than create a separate commission to oversee the commercial cannabis market, for example, the industry would be regulated by the state Regulations and Licensing Department, as HB 12 proposed.
Pirtle emphasized throughout the regular session the need for commercial legalization to undercut and help eliminate the illicit market. His bill proposes a relatively low 8 percent excise rate, compared to 12 percent in HB 12, and contains no limit on license numbers or the number of plants a cultivator could grow. It would begin legal sales later this year, with licensed medical marijuana businesses able to begin sales to adults a few months before new businesses come online.
Martínez, however, stressed that a legalization bill without equity protections is a nonstarter for HB 12’s backers.
“Sen. Pirtle’s got some good ideas that have already been incorporated into House Bill 12,” he said. Asked about Pirtle’s new proposal, Martínez said it “seriously lacks lacks any type of legitimate effort towards social justice, and we are simply not legalizing for the sake of legalization. That’s been made very clear by us and by the governor.”
Legislative leaders settled on HB 12 from among a handful of legalization proposals introduced this session by both Democrats and Republicans. Over the course of the past several weeks, the bills’ sponsors have tried to unify the conflicting proposals and incorporate feedback from colleagues.
Polling indicates New Mexico voters are ready for the policy change. A survey released in October found a strong majority of residents are in favor of legalization with social equity provisions in place, and about half support the decriminalization of drug possession more broadly.
Gov. Lujan Grisham, meanwhile, included cannabis legalization as part of her 2021 legislative agenda and has repeatedly talked about the need to legalize as a means to boost the economy, especially amid the coronavirus pandemic. She said during a State of the State address in January that “a crisis like the one we’ve experienced last year can be viewed as a loss or as an invitation to rethink the status quo—to be ambitious and creative and bold.”
Additional pressure to end cannabis prohibition this year is coming from neighboring Arizona, where sales officially launched in January after voters approved a legalization ballot initiative last year. To New Mexico’s north is Colorado, one of the first states to legalize for adult use.
Cannabis is also expected to be legalized across the southern border in Mexico, with lawmakers facing a Supreme Court mandate to end prohibition by the end of April.
Before last year’s failed effort, New Mexico’s House in 2019 approved a legalization bill that included provisions to put marijuana sales mostly in state-run stores, but that measure died in the Senate. Later that year, Lujan Grisham created a working group to study cannabis legalization and issue recommendations.
In May of last year, the governor signaled she was considering actively campaigning against lawmakers who blocked her legalization bill in 2020. She also said that she’s open to letting voters decide on the policy change via a ballot referendum if lawmakers can’t send a legalization bill to her desk.
Read Pirtle’s draft legal marijuana bill for the special session below:
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