SANTA FE – Two competing proposals to legalize marijuana in New Mexico — one from a Republican, the other from a Democrat — have emerged from a bargaining session among legislators on Tuesday, amid efforts to balance demands of incumbent medical marijuana producers with calls for new economic opportunity.
Two other competing proposals were abandoned, and a Senate committee advanced a legalization proposal from Republican state Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell that promises independent regulatory oversight by a Cannabis Control Board, with minimal license fees and taxes on pot sales along with limitless crops and business licenses.
Pirtle asked Senate colleagues to let the free market for marijuana thrive and produce low-priced marijuana to stamp out the illicit market. Small industry players would be guaranteed shelf space at retail outlets, he said.
At the same time, the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has stepped in to broker a compromise with an alliance of medical marijuana producers that want the state to extend its cap on cultivation to guard against a supply glut if pot is legalized.
Linda Trujillo, the governor-appointed superintendent of regulation and licensing, authored new provisions to a House-approved bill that allows state intervention when “market equilibrium” is reached to restrict the number of cannabis plants grown and new licenses.
“We are putting in here the possibility that the department could, in fact, limit the plant count, but it would require the department to do an analysis,” Trujillo told a committee.
That provision was attached to a bill from Democratic Rep. Javier Martínez of Albuquerque that places an emphasis on helping communities adversely affected by marijuana criminalization, with automatic procedures for expunging charges and convictions for cannabis possession and releasing inmates held on possession infractions.
The fate of the two surviving bills is in the hands of the Senate judiciary committee, where majority Democrats last year joined Republicans in blocking legalization.
Proposals legalizing recreational cannabis sales to adults 21 and older emerged after weeks of rocky negotiations on whether to extend cannabis cultivation limits that have helped sustain small-scale medical marijuana producers but led to complaints of inflated retail prices.
Whether legislators can reach a compromise to send to Lujan Grisham, who supports recreational marijuana, is an open question amid stubbornly divergent views for legalization.
Legislators are confronting a March 20 deadline, when the state’s annual legislative session ends, to craft recreational marijuana rules while preserving a supply chain to the existing medical cannabis program for roughly 100,000 patients — and setting up ground rules for a larger recreational pot industry.
Doing so requires lawmakers to make complex decisions about taxation, child access and home-grown cannabis.
Republican state Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho, a proponent of legalization, blasted the Democrat-sponsored legalization for favoring current marijuana producers with a monthslong head start in the licensing process. He said licensing fees of up to $125,000 per business, with an additional $50 per-plant fee, make the industry inaccessible.
“I think it’s protecting the license holders that have it now,” he said. “We’re really not making it accessible and making it where just the average person can get in.”
Advocates for the approach say most licenses will cost less and that per-plant fees would be waived for specialized micro-producers.
Most recreational marijuana laws in the U.S. have been approved via ballot initiatives but New Mexico’s Constitution prohibits that. Only Illinois and Vermont have legalized marijuana through the legislative process and Virginia’s Legislature in February sent a legalization bill to a supportive Democratic governor.
Carly Wolf, states policy manager with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said that support for home-grown marijuana, a provision of the bill from Democrats, extends beyond hobbyists to people concerned about unnecessary police searches.
“An important thing with home cultivation is the removal of the odor of marijuana as grounds to search and enter people’s homes,” Wolf noted.
The two competing bills defer to communities on zoning issues regarding operating hours and locations. Some are concerned small-town marijuana shops near New Mexico’s state line with Texas, where recreational marijuana is prohibited, could drive Texans to New Mexico in droves to buy weed.
New Mexico voters last year ousted many incumbent Democratic state senators who adamantly opposed legalization.
Last year, voters in Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota approved ballot measures for recreational cannabis. Mississippi approved creating a medical marijuana program.
Lujan Grisham has emphasized recreational marijuana’s potential for improving employment and economic development in a state economy that some say is overly reliant on oil and natural gas production.