New Mexico’s Senate failed to hear a marijuana legalization bill as time ticked down to the close of the legislative session on Saturday. With just hours left before lawmakers adjourned, however, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) said she’ll call them back soon for a special session to consider the issue of ending cannabis prohibition.
“We’re going to have a special session in a week or so, and we’re going to get cannabis because I am not going to wait another year,” the governor said in comments to the Sandoval County Democratic Party on Saturday. “We’re going to win it and it’s going to have the social justice aspects that we know have to be in a package.”
The governor’s office said that as lawmakers continued through a session that stretched past midnight, Lujan Grisham “has had very productive conversations with leadership on both sides about a path forward on legalized adult-use cannabis.”
“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,” the statement said.
The legalization measure, HB 12, which passed the House of Representatives last month, was repeatedly delayed during the week amid a frantic push by lawmakers to make amendments to the nearly 200-page bill. While the full Senate was scheduled to hear the legislation Friday, it became clear over the course of the day that wouldn’t happen.
The legislature officially came to a close at noon Saturday. To make that deadline, the Senate would have had to pass the measure, then the full House would have needed to sign off on the Senate’s changes. If the House had rejected those amendments, the two chambers would’ve formed a conference committee to hammer out a deal.
“Everyone’s first preference is that this gets done and done right by 12 p.m. tomorrow,” said the Friday night statement from the governor’s office. “But there are a lot of priorities left to be heard, and only so many hours left, and legislators working very hard over long hours to move priorities.”
In a joint statement issued minutes after the governor’s announcement, the bill’s two lead sponsors, Reps. Javier Martínez (D) and Andrea Romero (D), said they “welcome any avenue” to pass the bill this year.
“We need to legalize adult-use cannabis tonight or in a special session,” the sponsors said. “House Bill 12 puts forward New Mexico’s best opportunity to establish a multi-million-dollar industry with a framework that prioritizes social justice and equal opportunity for our communities. The governor has made a commitment to sign a bill that represents our shared principles.”
— NM House Democrats (@NMHouseDems) March 20, 2021
The Governor has made a commitment to sign a bill that represents our shared principles, and we welcome any avenue, to do so. New Mexico is ready."
— NM House Democrats (@NMHouseDems) March 20, 2021
On Saturday, after the session’s end, Lujan Grisham said at a press conference that she feels “very confident that this legislative body is going to figure out all of the issues that still need a little bit of effort and debate, and we’re going to be ready to go.”
“I feel very confident that we are going to be able to announce adult-use cannabis in the very near future in New Mexico,” she said, adding that the special session could begin on or around March 31.
— Rachel Knapp (@RachelKnappNews) March 20, 2021
“Legalized adult-use cannabis is one of the best moves we can make in our work to build a bona fide 21st century economy in New Mexico,” the governor said in a press release. “I believe legalization will be one of the largest job-creation programs in state history, driving entrepreneurial opportunities statewide for decades to come. I look forward to continuing to work with lawmakers to get the job done and done right.”
Legalized adult-use cannabis is one of the best moves we can make to help build a bona fide 21st century economy in New Mexico.
We are very close. And we will finish the job. New Mexico is ready.
My full statement on the special session: pic.twitter.com/RUlusTFnRH
— Michelle Lujan Grisham (@GovMLG) March 20, 2021
Emily Kaltenbach, the senior director for resident states and New Mexico for the Drug Policy Alliance, and who served as a consultant to the bill’s sponsors, cheered the governor’s move to extend the discussion into special session.
“While we are disappointed that New Mexicans will have to wait a little bit longer to reap the benefits and justice cannabis legalization will provide—especially to Hispanic/Latinx, Black, Native and Indigenous communities, who have been disproportionately impacted by prohibition—after the legislature failed to pass House Bill 12 this session, we applaud Governor Lujan Grisham for acknowledging this cannot wait and indicating she will take up legalization in a special session,” she said.
NORML’s state policies manager, Carly Wolf, stressed that a failure to legalize cannabis this year would mean continued consequences for vulnerable communities.
“Lawmakers, for the moment, have once again failed to deliver common sense marijuana policy reform for the people of New Mexico — an overwhelming majority of whom support legalizing cannabis for adults,” she said. “In the interim, thousands of their constituents, disproportionately their constituents of color, will continue to be saddled with criminal records and the lifelong penalties and stigma associated with it.”
The latest official version of the bill was approved early Thursday morning by the Senate Judiciary Committee after a contentious late-night hearing, but the legislation is likely to change significantly by the time it comes to a vote in a special session. As the regular session’s end approached, journalists and lawmakers tweeted out reports of efforts to overhaul its core components.
“For those following marijuana legalization and assuming I was stalling the process, know that I’ve learned we will see a substantially rewritten bill today with fewer than 24 hours and zero committee on what it might be,” posted Sen. Joe Cervantes (D), the Judiciary chairman and a vocal opponent of the bill who said it was too poorly written to become law.
Around 3 today I received a rewrite of the legal marijuana bill from sponsors. Check version 220993.2. Much better writing and correcting many obvious errors. The bill has been out of SJC committee for two days, and so it is now up up to the full Senate.
— Sen. Joe Cervantes (@SenJoeCervantes) March 20, 2021
Cervantes tore into the bill’s language during the panel hearing a day earlier but declined to discuss possible changes with sponsors during that meeting. “I just don’t have the time tonight to do this with you,” he told them. “You all can do this tonight, tomorrow, and work on it harder. And you don’t need me to do that. If people were reading this bill carefully, they would realize that it’s wrong.”
In a tweet on Friday night, Cervantes again criticized the sponsors for not being able to write “an intelligible bill” in his view.
Martinez, for his part, replied by saying that he respects the chairman but asked him to “stop demeaning our work.”
But please 🙏🏽 stop demeaning our work. HB12 is a good bill. This has been a labor of love for the past few years. Now that the bill is effectively dead, we’ll go back & rewrite, taking all of your good feedback. We look forward to seeing you in SJC again soon. Thank you, Senator.
— Rep. Javier Martínez (@JavierForNM) March 20, 2021
Around 2:00 PM on Friday, reporter Andy Lyman of the New Mexico Political Report said multiple sources had told him of plans to remove HB 12’s section that would expunge past cannabis crimes “and somehow incorporate it into” a separate House bill about criminal records. That legislation was also ultimately not considered by the Senate prior to the end of the session.
By 7:00 PM, Lyman tweeted that he was hearing “that cannabis legalization, as of now, will not pass the Senate and may not even be heard by the end of the session.”
Minutes later, Sen. Cliff Pirtle (R), who introduced a competing legalization measure this session, told Marijuana Moment the bill wasn’t done just yet. “Working hard to fix it,” he said in a text message. “We have time.”
— Daniel Chacon (@danieljchacon) March 20, 2021
Pirtle, the ranking Republican in the Senate Judiciary Committee, had introduced a committee amendment earlier in the week that would have replaced the full text of HB 12 with language from his own measure, but the panel rejected that move.
At 8:30 PM, a reporter for The Daily Lobo tweeted that he asked HB 12 sponsor Romero about the status of the bill. “I wish I knew,” the representative replied. “I’m watching the clock tick like everyone else.”
As of early Saturday morning, HB 12 was still on the Senate’s calendar, although Sen, Jacob Candelaria (D), who sponsored yet another cannabis legalization bill this year, tweeted, “I do not expect recreational cannabis to pass this regular session, due in part to @NMHouseGOP scorched earth tactics to shut down the people’s house.”
“Special Session here we come,” he said.
13-ish hours till Sine Die.
I do not expect recreational cannabis to pass this regular session, due in part to @NMHouseGOP scorched earth tactics to shut down the people’s house.
— jacobcandelaria (@SenCandelaria) March 20, 2021
House Republicans appeared to take a temporary victory lap of sorts, tweeting that the governor “has FAILED to get her showpiece marijuana bill across the line.”
“She now says she will call us back next week,” the caucus said.
UNBELIEVABLE. After spending $2 million on a fence blocking YOU from the Roundhouse for a year- @GovMLG has FAILED to get her showpiece marijuana bill across the line. She now says she will call us back next week. Taxpayers, the Gov's agenda is on your dime. #nmpol #nmleg
— NM House Republicans (@NMHouseGOP) March 20, 2021
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.
Cervantes has repeatedly framed the proposal as “all about money,” a critique he echoed at the committee hearing. “I’m sure the big guys have written this bill. I wasn’t born yesterday,” he said.
The chairman again complained about last-minute changes in a tweet on Saturday morning.
For those following marijuana, latest bill sent to me at 8:12 a.m.
— Sen. Joe Cervantes (@SenJoeCervantes) March 20, 2021
Pirtle, the Republican who brought a separate legalization bill this session, told Marijuana Moment that “it seems like the focus of House Bill 12 is social justice and not how to properly regulate cannabis.”
The bill has three major components, lead sponsor Martínez said at the most recent committee hearing: protecting existing medical marijuana patients, ensuring racial justice in how cannabis is legalized and establishing smart regulatory and tax systems.
“Is this bill perfect? Probably not,” he acknowledged. “Should this bill move forward, should we legalize cannabis in New Mexico this year, I can assure you that we will all be up here next year, making tweaks. That’s the way it should be … because good policy and good law should be evolving, especially when we attempt to do something as big as this.”
During the Senate Judiciary meeting, lawmakers amended the bill with changes to licensing rules, tax collection and criminal justice procedures, among other provisions. The revisions would also delay the proposed launch of commercial sales to April 2022. Sales would initially begin at existing medical marijuana dispensaries and newly licensed small businesses, then expand later in the year to all new licensees.
Pirtle on Saturday said he plans to “work with Democratic leaders and the governor” on crafting a revised legalization bill during the upcoming special session.
I introduced a carefully crafted, cannabis bill that could have passed. It didn’t receive a timely hearing and it was ignored until the complications in the House Bill surfaced. I plan to work with Democratic leaders and the Governor on legislation that addresses concerns. #nmleg
— Cliff Pirtle (@CliffPirtle) March 20, 2021
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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.
Say it again: New 👏 Mexico 👏 is 👏 ready. 👏
— Andrea Romero (@ARomero_NM) March 20, 2021
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.