On Tuesday, Sept. 10, the New Mexico Governor’s Working Group on Cannabis Legalization convened in the Vincent E. Griego Chambers in the basement of Albuquerque City Hall. Members of the group discussed the licensing, workplace protections and cannabis manufacturing sections of House Bill 356, the Cannabis Regulation Act, in front of a group of about 20 people.

HB 356 was introduced in the 2019 legislative session and sought to legalize the use of recreational marijuana in the state of New Mexico. The bill passed the House, stalled in the Senate and did not make it to Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s desk by the end of the session, rendering it dead on arrival.

Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis, the chairman of the working group, said “the governor wanted to make this the first priority going into the 2020 session” as they labored to craft a bill that will be as passable as possible.

Dr. David Duhigg of Presbyterian Healthcare Services, a member of the working group, expressed concerns about workplace protections for potential cannabis users whose employers must comply with the federal Drug-Free Workplace Act in order to receive grants and be able to work with health insurance companies. The concern was echoed by Councilor Davis about employees who must carry a firearm on the job.

State Representative Bill Pratt, a physician by trade and a presenter at the meeting, urged the working group to consider adding language to the manufacturing section of the bill which would define what types of products would ultimately be offered to the public.

He expressed concerns about products containing sugar or flavorings that children and young adults may find enticing. Members of the group who already work in medical cannabis production pushed back, citing the significant portion of sales they earn from edible products. Medical providers chimed in as well, arguing that, in their experience, most young people are using because of the high they experience and not because of the taste of the product.

If the Governor’s group members are an indicator, recreational cannabis production — should it become legalized in New Mexico — will be highly regulated, and many aspects of the manufacturing process will require licenses.

The group is proposing that dispensary licenses, much like New Mexico’s current liquor licensure system, would be limited in number.

"One of the challenges the Governor gave us was to create a system that ensures that formerly incarcerated people and over-criminalized communities are first in line to access these new opportunities," Councilor Davis said. This could mean ensuring those that have suffered the most from previous drug laws have access to licenses to open dispensaries and employment throughout the industry.

One of the more controversial aspects of the competing legalization bills during the 2019 session was who would be allowed to run the dispensaries.

Three Republican senators sponsored a bill to create a state run "Cannabis Control Commission" designed to "operate all facilities at which cannabis items are stored or offered for retail sale to the public." Later, this aspect of their bill was amended into HB 356. The Governor’s working group, however, is likely going to propose a state-regulated, private business model — much like alcohol establishments are currently regulated under New Mexico law — rather than a state-run system like the one proposed during the last session.

In an interview with the Daily Lobo, Chairman Davis addressed why he thought legalization would be beneficial to the future workforce. Some economists predict that legalizing recreational marijuana will create "a $700 billion industry in New Mexico... that would employ more than 11,000 people — that’s more than Education and Forestry put together," Davis said.

"If you want a job that’s green, that’s non-exportable, that can be done anywhere in New Mexico, this is the industry for you," Davis said. "This is an opportunity to create a new sector in our economy — one that is not oil and gas, that is not mining and that is homegrown."

The final cannabis legalization working group meeting will be held Sept. 25 in Santa Fe at the New Mexico State Capitol. Public health and safety topics, such as warning labels for young people or pregnant and lactating women, server training and regulations about driving under the influence are expected to be addressed.

Lissa Knudsen is a beat reporter for the Daily Lobo and can be contacted on Twitter @lissaknudsen or through news@dailylobo.com

Daniel Goodwin is a freelance news reporter for the Daily Lobo and can be contacted on Twitter @dg_5353 or through news@dailylobo.com