As lawmakers prepare to convene for a special legislative session focused on legalizing the use of recreational marijuana, Sen. Cliff Pirtle thinks he has a winner in his new and reworked bill.
But he is not alone. And as Tuesday’s session looms, an impending collision of ideas, priorities and politics seems likely to play out on an issue that flummoxed the Legislature throughout its recently completed 60-day session.
Pirtle, R-Roswell, was one of the first lawmakers to introduce a legalization bill in January. Though that legislation was sidelined by a committee late in the session, he’s back with a revamped and updated proposal he hopes finds favor with lawmakers and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
“I’m floating one I’ve crafted with components other people wanted,” Pirtle said Thursday. “Others may have done the same, so we’ll see what looks the best.”
He said he will take part Saturday afternoon in a virtual talk with members of the Governor’s Office and perhaps other lawmakers on the issue.
Pirtle’s revised 131-page bill would set a sliding scale, based on the size of the business, for license costs, and licenses to growers and retailers could be issued as soon as mid-May. It calls for a total of 8 percent in excise taxes between the state, county and municipality in question. It also would give current medical cannabis license holders a head start of a few months to get into the recreational trade. It contains no limit on plant production or license count.
But another bill also will get plenty of attention next week.
House Bill 12, the front-runner during much of the session, is still in the game, said Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe and co-sponsor of that legislation, along with Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque. Though their bill shares some common elements with Pirtle’s — both would legalize the growth and sale of cannabis for recreational use and place them under the jurisdiction of the state Regulation and Licensing Department — there are key differences.
Romero said Friday that while some tweaks are being made to HB 12, it’s still pretty close to the bill that came close to passage earlier this month.
There is one major difference — which could make or break either bill in the special session.
HB 12 originally included language calling for expungement — or at least a review — of previous criminal cases tied to cannabis possession or use. It also would allow a resident with a record of charges or convictions related to cannabis possession and use to apply for a license to grow or sell recreational cannabis.
That language has been decoupled from the bill and will be presented in a separate piece of legislation, Romero said.
“We want to lead with the expungement piece and how we would license those who have been jailed in the past for [cannabis] possession” she said. “That should not be a barrier. We should provide an equal opportunity once we legalize.”
Pirtle’s bill does not include such provisions. It makes it clear that anyone found guilty of the state’s Controlled Substances Act could be denied a license to grow or sell cannabis. He said he thinks “blanket expungement” is problematic, though it could be left up to the Regulation and Licensing Department to make case-by-case determinations.
How much this issue will play a role during the special session remains unclear. Some legislators, including Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen and minority leader of the Senate, have said they will not support any cannabis legalization bill with such provisions. As it is, it seems any number of bills on the cannabis issue might be considered in the special session.
Nora Meyers Sackett, spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, acknowledged language on expungement is key, but it’s only part of the equation. In an email, she wrote: “Those social justice issues are very important, but whether they are included in the bill or taken up as a standalone concurrent measure is a subject of ongoing conversation. But ultimately whether it’s one bill or five or 10, the governor’s priority is a comprehensive body of law that legalizes adult-use cannabis in a safe way while attending to the social justice components that are part a well-rounded legalization effort.”
Cannabis industry leaders say expungement should not torpedo efforts to get a deal together. Ben Lewinger, executive director of the New Mexico Cannabis Chamber of Commerce, said he does not think most lawmakers will block a cannabis bill because of the expungement clause alone.
He said the social and criminal justice reform pieces of the bill pushed by Martinez and Romero are “the 100 percent absolutely right things to do.”
Duke Rodriguez, head of the state’s largest medical cannabis operation, New Mexico Top Organics-Ultra Health Inc., said he thinks there are “talks in all corners of the state about legalizing cannabis” as Tuesday approaches. He said he’s heard speculation ranging from a single bill to the introduction of at least three separate pieces of legislation.
What he doesn’t want to see happen is for lawmakers to agree to approve or kill a bill based on one or two components, including the expungement or criminal-record elements. “I don’t believe it should be, ‘I’ll only pass this legislation if you give me these parts,’ ” he said Friday.
“Expungement and social justice pieces are important, needed changes,” he said. But, he added, “all the parts of the proposed legislation need to be considered separately and judged upon their own merits. They are all needed. Cannabis regulatory passage into law is important. Expungement is important. The social justice pieces are critical.”
While industry advocates have disagreed on certain provisions within the various competing bills, they seem unified in their desire to see some cannabis legalization framework put into law.
And now is the time to do it, they say, especially because bordering states have approved similar laws or, like Texas, are considering them.
“We’re thrilled that the governor elevated this issue to the platform of a special session,” said Emily Kaltenbach, senior state director of the national nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, which backs HB 12. She said cannabis legislation can move black market cannabis revenues into the state’s coffers.
Fiscal impact reports for the various cannabis bills during the regular session estimated the business, if legalized, could create 11,000 jobs and bring in up to $15 million in new revenue in the first year of operation. That figure could grow as high as $100 million over several years, at least one analysis said.
Romero, who said she and Martinez have been talking with Pirtle to build one piece of legislation incorporating ideas from both of their proposals, said lawmakers are still in the process of finalizing one bill to take into the special session.
“We believe New Mexico is ready for this,” she said.
Pirtle — who armed himself with a hefty stack of proposed amendments as he planned a one-man stand against HB 12 when it appeared poised to hit the Senate floor on the last night of the session, although it didn’t get a hearing — said he remains committed to wiping out New Mexico’s black market in cannabis.
“It’s important to get this together [over the weekend] so we can get this done in one day in a special session,” he said Friday.
As for how it might all play out by Tuesday, he added, “I’m waiting patiently.”