No decision by House committee, yet, on cannabis legalization

The push for cannabis legalization by some New Mexico lawmakers continues to be a steady, yet slow, effort.

The House Health and Human Services Committee on Saturday heard comments from members of the public as well as questions and concerns from three Republican representatives regarding cannabis legalization bills HB 12 and HB 17. But the committee did not vote on either bill and will return on Monday to consider additional amendments and decide whether one, both or neither bill will go on to the next committee.

Rep. Tara Lujan, D-Santa Fe is the lead sponsor of HB 17.

Lujan said that, while this is her first year as a legislator, she has watched the push for legalization closely.

“One of the things that we keep getting told is, ‘Wait and see, wait and see. Let’s look at the states that have the programs in place and learn from their mistakes before we move forward with our own legislation for New Mexico,” Lujan told the committee. “I’ve watched and as this push to legalize has repeatedly stalled out, it’s been very frustrating. It’s been frustrating for many of us as we see, especially our neighboring states around us move forward with it.”

Lujan framed her legalization bill as a distilled version of previous attempts at legalization, mainly focused on protecting the state’s current medical cannabis program. Backed by the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, Lujan’s bill includes limits on the number of plants cannabis producers could grow as a way to curb the illicit market and provisions limiting out of state-based businesses from getting into the New Mexico market.

Ben Lewinger, the director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, told the committee that last year’s attempt failed because it tried to address too many issues in one bill.

“I would submit that last year’s bill was trying to accomplish too much in a single piece of legislation,” Lewinger said. “And that’s what drove the approach of trying to include what is absolutely essential into a bill, with the very simple purpose of legalizing adult use cannabis, protecting patients in the medical program and creating something that had the absolute best chance of making it to the governor’s desk.”

Last year’s attempt was headed by Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, and was a comprehensive approach that included social and restorative justice aspects as well as provisions designed to ensure market equity for those who were negatively impacted by previous drug laws.

Martínez’s bill this year, HB 12, has similar framework as last year and again calls for a deliberate path for market equity, automatic expungements for those who were convicted of crimes involving cannabis, under now outdated drug laws. Martínez stressed the fact that cannabis legalization could bring significant tax revenue to the state and its residents.

“This is a big deal, Martínez said. “And it should be and it should be treated with the respect that it deserves.”

Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, who is a cosponsor of HB 12, said that in addition to equity and social justice, legalizing cannabis can help boost an economy that has suffered over the past 12 months.

“Why it’s so critical this year, and why it matters so much to New Mexico moving forward, is that we are in an economic sort of tailspin as far as what’s happened post-COVID and in COVID,” Romero said. “I see this as so critical to the bottom line of New Mexico and the possible revenues, the jobs and the opportunity that can be created, the entrepreneurs that will be developed the many, many people and the excitement of the folks that have reached out to me about the future of New Mexico because of this really unique opportunity that we’re presenting before you today.”

Questions and concerns

Only two people spoke out against legalization in general during the public comment portion of the meeting. But dozens of people shared their various concerns about the specific bills. Some said they favored HB 12 which would not limit the number of cannabis plants a commercial cultivator could grow and would also allow personal-use cannabis to be grown at a person’s home.

National cannabis activist and Grant County resident Doug Fine said he favored HB 12, specifically because it allowed for home cultivation.

“For thousands of New Mexico families, cannabis legalization is not about going to a store,” Fine said. “It’s about cultivating their own cannabis safely in their own home, inside or outside of a pandemic. It’s a non-starter to think about a cannabis bill without home cultivation. It’s how almost every state does it from Vermont to Colorado to Oregon.”

HB 12 is also supported by New Mexico medical cannabis producer Ultra Health, a company that has repeatedly battled with the state over the Department of Health’s rules governing medical cannabis. One of those repeated battles is over plant limits for medical cannabis producers.

But not all medical cannabis producers share the view of Ultra Health when it comes to unlimited cannabis plants.

Rachael Speegle, CEO of NM medical cannabis producer the Verdes Foundation, said allowing producers to grow unlimited amounts of cannabis will ultimately hinder opportunities for new cannabis producers.

“The unlimited plant count undermines the economic opportunity that we are trying to provide with these initiatives,” Speegle said. “We cannot flood the market with unlimited supply and expect new entrants, new license holders to survive, let alone thrive.”

Speegle also dismissed the notion that producers like her company were against home cultivation out of fear of competition.

“Home grows instead threaten my child’s safety, they threaten all of our safety because people should not be trading and consuming unregulated, untested intoxicants,” she said.

The three Republicans on the committee were the only members who asked questions of the bills and raised their concerns.

Rep. Stefani Lord, R-Sandia Park, said she was concerned about how the proposed bills would impact gun owners.

“Can you smoke pot and possess a gun?” Lord asked.

“I don’t see why not,” Martínez answered.

Lord said her question was regarding a state law that makes carrying a gun “while under the influence of an intoxicant or narcotic.”

Later, Lord raised her concern that there is not currently a reliable test to show levels of impairment, which she said creates ambiguity with the gun law she referenced as well as impaired driving laws.

“How are we going to know what the levels are of somebody being too impaired to drive?” Lord asked.

Lewinger said measuring impairment of cannabis can be measured the same as both illicit and prescription drugs.

“I would posit that there probably never will be a really good way to measure cannabis impairment in terms of a blood draw or in terms of some equivalent to the Breathalyzer,” Lewinger said. “We do have in New Mexico, drug recognition experts, so this is an accreditation that law enforcement officers can receive.”

Martínez and Lewinger both said HB 12 and HB 17 would help local police fund drug recognition programs.

Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, raised her own concerns about water use, taxes and support from law enforcement and hinted that she might vote against both bills.

“I do have some concerns, and I look forward to seeing what becomes of this,” Armstrong said.

Rep. Phelps Andserson of Roswell, who recently left the Republican Party and has no official political affiliation, also expressed hesitancy of cannabis legalization, but said he would like to see the state’s lottery scholarship fund benefit from cannabis sales tax revenue.

“I’m not sure you’re going to get my support,”Anderson said. “But clearly, if New Mexico adopts this going forward for all the reasons, we want it to be as successful as it possibly can.”

House Health and Human Services Committee Chair Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, said the committee will continue with questions from members and will vote on the two bills on Monday, but there will not be another public comment period.

Rep. Roger Montoya, D-Velarde, said he plans to propose changes to the bills regarding fines and fees for juveniles.

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