New Mexico legalization bill for recreational use cannabis clears House committee

Competing bills differed on plant count limits and home growing

Algernon D'Ammassa
Las Cruces Sun-News

SANTA FE – A House legislative committee on Monday debated two bills legalizing cannabis for recreational use in New Mexico, ultimately sending one along to the House Taxation Revenue Committee and tabling the other. 

HB 12 and HB 17 both would have legalized cannabis for recreational use in New Mexico while taking different approaches to licensing and regulation. The bills were compared and debated at length in hearings on Saturday and Monday. 

Democratic state Reps. Tara Lujan of Santa Fe and Roger Montoya of Velarde cosponsored the latter bill, which was tabled on a 7-4 vote, effectively killing it, though committee members encouraged them to offer amendments incorporating aspects of their bill into HB 12. 

The version of the Cannabis Regulation Act that emerged from the committee provides a plan for regulating production, distribution and sales of cannabis to adults ages 21 and older through a new Cannabis Control Division at the state Regulation and Licensing Department. 

Background: Lawmakers again weigh legal cannabis; here's what needs to be worked out

It would also permit home growing with no plant count limit, and cannabis licenses — unlike New Mexico liquor licenses — would not be limited in number, could not be bought and sold and would require annual renewal. 

The state would derive revenue from cannabis sales from a 9 percent excise tax on sales, which would not apply to medical cannabis sales. That revenue would be earmarked for assistance to low-income medical cannabis patients and grants to fund substance abuse education and other grants for communities adversely affected by past drug criminalization.

New Mexico state Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, seen in a Jan. 15, 2019 file photo, is a co-sponsor of the Cannabis Regulation Act, H.B. 12, which got a "do pass" recommendation from the House Health and Human Services Committee on Feb. 15.

It would also allow for local excise taxes, but chairwoman Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque and a co-sponsor of HB 12, said the aim was to hold total taxation to around 20 percent, keeping prices low enough to undercut the illicit market.

Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Albuquerque and another cosponsor of the bill, said the legislation would ensure product quality and safety and establish a lucrative new industry to diversify the state's economy. 

Under questioning from committee members, however, proponents again conceded that there was not yet a reliable measure of cannabis intoxication akin to a breathalyzer or blood test, since the psychoactive component of cannabis can linger for weeks in a person's system.

New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce director Ben Lewinger said revenues could fund training for law enforcement officers in field tests for impairment from non-alcoholic substances, saying about 300 drug recognition experts are already certified in the state and that the force could be expanded. 

At Monday's hearing, committee member Luis Terrazas, R-Silver City, probed lawmakers at length over public safety concerns, saying he was once a supporter of legalization but changed his mind based on reports that narcotics traffickers simply switched to selling other drugs.

More: Las Cruces Mayor votes 'no' on recreational cannabis

State Rep. Luis Terrazas, R-Silver City, examined both House cannabis legalization bills at length over public safety and regulatory concerns during Monday's hearing before the House Health and Human Services Committee.

Terrazas also balked at allowing providers with previous convictions to obtain licenses under the new system, arguing those who violated the law in the past should not eligible, especially if those convictions involved other illegal narcotics. 

Romero countered that the aim was for experienced providers to "break good," and operate within a regulated environment and its accountability measures.

Terrazas suggested that New Mexico was not ready to welcome legal recreational use, expressing concern that education and preparation for adverse consequences would follow legalization rather than precede it. 

Another committee member, Albuquerque Democrat Marian Matthews, asked sponsors of both bills to explain how they balanced the state's interest in public safety against harvesting revenue from "potentially harmful conduct," as with lottery and alcohol sales.

The debate revealed distinct theories on the value of plant count limits. HB 17 would have maintained adjustable limits on the number of plants producers could cultivate, with Lujan advocating for a "grow as we go" approach: Controlling supply in order to protect against price fluctuations that could drive small producers out of the market and cede the field to larger enterprises. 

More: New Mexico GOP calls on State Rep. Phelps Anderson to resign

Romero, on the other hand, argued that plant count limits could create supply shortages and an opening for the illicit market to fill in the gap, an echo of past legal arguments over plant count limits in the state's medical cannabis program. 

Lawmakers also debated the right balance between regulating through statutes versus administrative rulemaking, the latter offering more flexibility to adjust regulations to the developing marketplace and consequences, although Terrazas expressed concern about consistency from one administration to the next. 

HB 12 proceeds to the House Taxation and Revenue Committee, while two Senate bills — SB 13 and SB 288 — are pending in the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee.

New Mexico legalized cannabis for medical use in 2007, instituting a program regulated by the state Department of Health. Recreational cannabis has been legalized in neighboring states Arizona and Colorado, while the Texas legislature is considering legalization as well as the federal government of Mexico, which could become the third country to do so after Uruguay and Canada.

Algernon D'Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.