A New Mexico Senate panel advanced two competing marijuana legalization bills at a Tuesday hearing as lawmakers work to merge a handful of proposals into a single measure ahead of a legislative deadline later this month.
The Senate Tax, Business and Transportation committee unanimously passed a Republican-led Senate bill to legalize and regulate marijuana for adults 21 and older at the hearing. In a separate 7–4 vote, the panel also advanced an amended version of House legislation approved by that chamber late last month.
The NM Senate Tax, Business & Transportation Committee voted to do-pass CS/CS/HB 12/a (7-4). The bill enacts the Cannabis Regulation Act, a plan for regulation and licensing of commercial #cannabis production/distribution/sale/consumption by people 21+. #nmleg #nmpol #nmgov pic.twitter.com/1lnJ22TRFs
— NM Senate Democrats (@NMSenateDems) March 10, 2021
Two other Senate proposals, SB 363 and SB 13, which the panel considered during an earlier hearing, were left by the wayside with the consent of their sponsors as lawmakers continue rolling the various bills into one.
Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth (D), a member of the panel, voted in favor of both remaining bills, HB 12 and SB 288, acknowledging the need for lawmakers to continue ironing out the proposals’ remaining differences.
“I’m moving them both forward because I think the discussion continues,” he said. “I don’t want there to be a sense that we’re picking a bill, one over the other.”
The Senate Tax, Business & Transportation Committee voted to do-pass CS/*SB 288 (10-0). The bill would enacts the Cannabis Regulation Act, decriminalizing commercial cannabis for nonmedical adult use and creates a regulatory and tax structure. #nmpol #nmleg #nmgov #cannabisbill pic.twitter.com/XHnORBhUR8
— NM Senate Democrats (@NMSenateDems) March 9, 2021
Both measures now proceed to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Rep. Javier Martínez (D), a lead sponsor of HB 12, said at the hearing there’s “plenty of time” to pass legalization before the legislative session ends on March 20.
“The clock is ticking on the session,” Martínez said, “but I believe we still have plenty of time to come together to a compromise that works for all.”
The bills overlap significantly at this point in the process, although some differences still remain. Changes to both measures at Tuesday’s hearing brought them even closer together.
A substitute SB 288 adopted by the panel, for example, removes language that would allow municipalities to opt out of allowing licensed cannabis businesses to operate locally, a change that sponsor Sen. Cliff Pirtle (R) said would prevent the regulatory patchwork that currently exists in the state around alcohol sales. That provision mirrors HB 12, which would also forbid local governments from banning marijuana businesses within their boundaries.
Changes to SB 288 also added language to enable Native American tribes located within New Mexico to participate in the new industry and included a provision to allow the state to participate in cannabis commerce with other legal states if and when federal prohibition is lifted.
Another change removed a requirement that businesses be located at least one mile apart, as the measure already allows municipalities to make those decisions themselves through local zoning rules.
Meanwhile, the panel adopted 16 pages of amendments to HB 12. While most of the changes were minor clean-up adjustments, lawmakers also modified some key licensing rules, for example by increasing the plant limit for small, so-called microbusinesses to 200 plants, up from 99 plants in prior versions of the bill. Another change would expand the types of cannabis businesses that could add social consumption areas.
Martínez, sponsor of the House bill, accepted the Senate panel’s changes “in the spirit of collaboration.”
“I think that the House of Representatives and the experts that we brought to the table have come up with a really solid framework,” he said. “In the spirit of collaboration, and the spirit of compromise and in the spirit of moving this very important piece of legislation forward, we will accept this as a friendly amendment.”
Much of the committee discussion centered on the proposed structure of the commercial market, specifically whether state regulators would be able to limit the number of plants produced under a cultivation license.
SB 288 would forbid the state from setting a cap on plants, which Pirtle said would better allow legal stores to compete with illegal sales. “It’s important to me to ensure that we let the free market determine how much cannabis can be produced,” he said. “Since the goal is to put the illicit market out of business, we do want the price to be as cheap as possible.”
Under HB 12 as amended, meanwhile, state regulators would be able to limit producers—as well as temporarily halt the issuance of new cultivation licenses—but only after an advisory committee determination that existing supply threatens the economic viability of the industry, according to an explanation from Linda Trujillo, superintendent of the state Department of Regulation and Licensing.
“That was our way of negotiating between no plant count, and a line-in-the-sand plant count,” Trujillo said.
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Other changes made to HB 12 would add a $50-per-plant licensing fee and clarify that licensed growers could not sell directly to consumers, only wholesale to other cannabis businesses.
Wirth acknowledged the licensing and plant caps are “going to be the big issue at the next stop.” A number of other members of the panel agreed, noting concerns such as ensuring equitable access to the industry and preventing large out-of-state players from dominating the market.
How the Senate Judiciary Committee decides to move forward on the two bills could set up different timelines on passage. As the Santa Fe Reporter pointed out last week, passing the House bill would likely be the swifter path.
Because HB 12 has already passed the House, a Senate-passed version of the bill would go to a concurrence committee with members of both the House and Senate before moving to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D). Under the current version of the bill, legal sales would begin March 1 of next year.
If Senators pass SB 288, on the other hand, that measure will first have to move through a series of House committees and be approved on the House floor—likely a slower process that could run up against the end of the legislative session.
For her part, Lujan Grisham 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 last month 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.”
The governor also included cannabis legalization as part of her 2021 legislative agenda that she released in January and said in a recent interview that she’s “still really optimistic about cannabis” this session.
That optimism is bolstered by the fact that several anti-legalization Democrats, including the Senate president pro tem and the Finance Committee chair, were ousted by progressive primary challengers last year.
Additional pressure to end cannabis prohibition this year is coming from neighboring Arizona, where voters approved legalization in November and where sales officially launched in January.
New Mexico shares another border with 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 April.
Earlier, in 2019, the House approved a legalization bill that included provisions to put marijuana sales mostly in state-run stores, but it died in the Senate. Later that year, Lujan Grisham created a working group to study cannabis legalization and issue recommendations.
Polling indicates that voters are ready for the policy change. A survey released in October found that a strong majority of New Mexico residents are in favor of legalization with social equity provisions in place, and about half support decriminalizing drug possession more broadly.
Last May, the governor signaled that 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.
Photo courtesy of Rick Proctor