New Mexico will have to wait for its turn in the proverbial smoke session after the Cannabis Regulation Act (House Bill 12) failed to be heard on the Senate floor before the 2021 legislative session ended at noon on March 20.
In response to yet another failure to join the growing number of states allowing recreational marijuana use, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is set to call a special session for “roughly March 31” to specifically address legalization efforts, according to an official press release sent out two hours after the session ended.
“I believe legalization will be one of the largest job-creation programs in state history, driving entrepreneurial opportunities statewide for decades to come,” Lujan Grisham said. “I look forward to continuing to work with lawmakers to get the job done and done right.”
Though it was expected to be heard in the waning hours of the 60-day session, HB 12 never reached the Senate floor following a harrowing journey through the Legislature.
The long and winding road leads to a closed door
A revised draft of HB 12 was presented to Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, less than 24 hours prior to the session’s end. One legislative source said the proposal included splitting the bill into two separate bills: one addressing legalization and the other addressing expungement and other social justice remedies to decades-old “War on Drugs” criminalization policies.
Wirth told the Albuquerque Journal he felt the new proposal still wasn’t ready and said had he called the bill up to be heard, he was concerned that senators would likely be engaged in extensive debate, thus ensuring that a number of other bills wouldn’t have been passed by the noon deadline.
Lujan Grisham agreed.
“Rushing through amendments in the final hours of a session, when there’s a mountain of other very important work to be done, is not the right way to do something of this magnitude,” Lujan Grisham said.
Early Thursday morning, HB 12 (sponsored by Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, and Rep. Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque) passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a 5-4 vote to head to the Senate floor for a final vote. Although some advocates expected it to pass on party lines and move its way to Lujan Grisham for a final, historic signature, all the momentum legalization had accumulated in recent years was again stymied at the final hour.
Splintered efforts doom cohesive legislation
HB 12 pulled through to become the top dog amongst several competing bills in the feverish, exhausting and ultimately unfinished race to legalize adult use of marijuana in New Mexico.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, joined three Republicans — Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, Gregory Baca, R-Belen, and Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque — to vote against the passage out of committee and was openly against the state fully legalizing marijuana throughout the session. Cervantes said HB 12 wasn’t ready, highlighting discrepancies between the language of the bill and the intention behind the policy.
Cervantes pointed out that the Cannabis Regulation Act’s language stated that a legal consumer would be able to buy at least two ounces of flower, but the intent of the policy was actually to the contrary in that a consumer could only buy, at most, two ounces at a time.
Same old pot song and dance
The progress of similar legalization efforts were stunted in the Senate Judiciary Committee in years prior, and parallel concerns were broached once again in 2021.
Possible limits on how many plants that a licensee may produce remained a popular talking point, drawing more comparisons between the Cannabis Regulation Act and Pirtle’s Senate Bill 288, which didn’t include a plant count limit.
An amendment made to HB 12 on Thursday would allow a plant production limit to be placed on licensees to proportionately reflect the median plant count of growers nationally. The limits on plant count were of particular interest as legislators tried to balance concerns of market equilibrium with potential shortages of supply in the medical cannabis industry.
Another point of contention was a proposed low-income patient subsidy fund for medical marijuana consumers. The version of HB 12 that made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee included language that proposed using money collected from taxes on marijuana to “support qualified patients” by issuing subsidies to low-income applicants in order to offset the costs of their medical cannabis.
Due to the current nature of the bill, however, it remains uncertain as to what provisions will be removed or amended and what additions may be included in the special session.
‘Water and oil:’ Republicans balk at expungement
Beyond plant count and state subsidies for cannabis purchases, the two legislative chambers had an ideological chasm between social equity provisions and legalization. The final House bill included various social equity provisions meant to roll back the damages of cannabis criminalization on communities of color, with provisions that called for the expungement of arrest records for trafficking cannabis, among others.
Advocates and sponsors of the House Cannabis Regulation Act argued that social justice and legalization go hand-in-hand — that one could not exist without the other while trying to undo decades of damage wrought by the War on Drugs. In contrast, GOP senators like Baca said the two issues were like “water and oil” and must be separated and respectively managed.
One Senate source, who asked to remain anonymous, speculated that separating the social justice and legalization aspects of HB 12 might result in both bills being passed, given that the predicted vote margin in the Senate is expected to be close. Their logic was that some Republicans might be willing to vote for legalization while opposing expungement, and some Democrats might be willing to vote for the social justice components while opposing legalization, creating a situation wherein both bills could receive the necessary votes for passage.
Though the bill’s death may come as a disappointment to cannabis advocates and the 73% of New Mexicans who favor legalization, some advocates like Jason Barker — who has worked closely with New Mexico’s medical cannabis program — said the Cannabis Regulation Act should never have passed in its heavily amended form given its compromises.
“It was a good bill in the House chamber, but the Senate committees amended the bill favoring special interests, hurting (micro businesses), patients and consumers,” Barker said in a message to the Daily Lobo.
Lissa Knudsen contributed reporting to this article.
Gabriel Biadora is a beat reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @gabrielbiadora