New Mexico Takes Major Step Toward Legal Cannabis

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On Wednesday, New Mexico will take another step toward legalizing adult-use cannabis, with a public hearing led by Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s legalization working group. 

What’s on the agenda? New Mexicans can expect the question of the positives and negatives of state-run stores to be at the forefront of the discussion, as well as concerns about public health and public safety. The hearing is the first of a series of four planned meetings, with the possibility of more, to be held by the governor’s Working Group on Cannabis Legalization, leading up to New Mexico’s next legislative session in 2020.

A bill that would regulate the sale and use of cannabis died in the state’s Senate in March, after narrow approval by the House of Representatives. Complicating the passage of the bill was a last minute amendment allowing for state-run cannabis stores. New Mexico would have been the first state to enact a law creating state-run retail stores, and Representative Javier Martínez, the Democrat from Albuquerque who authored the first version of the bill, argues that it opened up a host of regulatory questions that the state was not prepared to answer.

“It’s hard for me to fathom a state walking into a relatively unknown, brand new industry and being able to actually handle executing it,” Martínez told Cannabis Wire. “But again, I think we’ve got four months for proponents to convince me otherwise and we’ll see where that takes us.Among other issues raised by the possibility of state-run stores, Martínez said it was unclear how exactly New Mexico would bank money from retail stores without federal legalization, how it would ensure consumer choice of products, and how it would be able to train state employees effectively. 

“I think that folks that are proponents of state-owned stores will have to make a really, really good case as to why it is that we need to go in that direction,” Martínez said, “And so far they haven’t made those good arguments, so we’ll see what transpires over the next few months.” 

Those proponents of state-run facilities would likely disagree. They argue that state-run stores would prevent high-density areas of cannabis retail or “clustering,” allow independent cannabis producers in rural areas a chance to succeed by curbing corporate monopolies, and ensure consistency in the rollout of new cannabis regulations. State representatives who opposed the bill, including those who supported state-run stores, did not respond to repeated requests for comment by press time. 

Pat Davis, an Albuquerque City Council member and chair of the working group, told Cannabis Wire that he is skeptical of state-run stores, and contends that there are workarounds to opponents’ concerns about privatization. State control might mitigate a concentrated “green mile” of cannabis stores in one area, for example, but he argued local zoning rules could also address this. Proponents of state-run stores will have a chance to present supporting data and arguments in the upcoming hearings, and Davis said, “I can one hundred percent tell you that state-run stores will be a part of our conversation until the very last minute.” 

Retail sales are far from the only concern for opponents of the bill, meanwhile. In a state that has struggled with high rates of alcohol-related driving fatalities, Republican opposition has argued that legal cannabis will open the door for driving under the influence of cannabis and encourage youth use of the drug. Though data on juvenile use of adult use cannabis is limited, one study from Emory University found that medical cannabis legalization increased first-time use in young adults aged 12-20. Another study from Colorado’s office of behavioral health found no rise in teen cannabis use with legalization. 

“My response to Republicans is: we have the problem now. So, we can either regulate and invest funding to prevent those same issues that they’re so concerned about, or we can just turn a blind eye and pretend it’s not happening right now,” Martínez told Cannabis Wire.

To address this issue, the current draft of the bill requires that a portion of the revenue from the sale of cannabis be directed toward programs that discourage youth use and train law enforcement to detect signs of driving under the influence. The draft of the bill, HB 356, that the working group is reviewing, projects that out of a total $38 million in revenue generated from a tax on adult use cannabis, 6% will go to a Health and Safety Fund and another 6% to the local DWI (“Driving While Intoxicated”) Grant Fund.

Meanwhile, the working group wants to prioritize protection of medical cannabis patients, as well as low-income residents and communities of color. New Mexico already implements a robust medical cannabis program, and the group wants to learn from states like Colorado and Nevada, whose adult use programs prompted cannabis shortages—and in some cases limited medical users’ access to the supply. 

Martínez and Davis said fairness is also one of the top priorities for a new draft of a legalization bill. “We are laser focused on equity—ensuring that people of color, people harmed by the War on Drugs, can participate in the industry as well, and benefit from the industry,” said Martínez. The working bill will introduce a “Community Reinvestment Fund,” designed to fund job placement, mental health initiatives, substance use treatment, legal services for formerly incarcerated persons, early intervention and outreach services, and small business incubators to encourage new New Mexicans to enter the cannabis market. A number of subgroups at the hearings will convene to discuss how to best include the area’s pueblos and tribes, which are federally run, and how to include Medicaid users who want to access cannabis. 

Once the working group concludes hearing public comments and fielding concerns in October, it will recommend changes to the bill for submission in January. The advisory group then anticipates another run through state congress once Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham adds the issue to her agenda at the start of next years’ thirty-day legislative session, beginning on January 21, 2020. 

Davis, for one, is confident that something will be passed in time. “Even opponents see the inevitability of this on a national level,” Davis said. “Everyone understands waiting this out is not going to prevent marijuana legalization from coming to New Mexico or other states. It’s just a matter of how do we do it in a way that recognizes their concerns.”

The next public hearing is scheduled for August 28 in Las Cruces, and will focus on local control, personal production licensing, and items deferred from the August 14 meeting.

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