New Mexico lawmakers involved in process say clearing cannabis bill was challenge

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Robert Nott, The Santa Fe New Mexican
·6 min read
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Apr. 2—There they were, a bunch of talking heads on Zoom, working against the clock to revise and rewrite a bill to legalize cannabis.

On any given day, there might have been five, six, maybe as many as 10 legislative insiders on Zoom — pitching amendments, reading portions of the document aloud, posing questions they thought others might ask about the legislation once it hit a committee hearing or floor session.

The ensemble included members of the House of Representatives and the state Senate; experts in the cannabis industry; the head of the state's Regulation and Licensing Department; and, for at least one day, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe, a co-sponsor of the Cannabis Regulation Act, the legislation that legalizes the adult use of marijuana, compared the scene to a troupe of actors and lawyers preparing for a theater show and court case all at once.

"This past weekend, on Sunday, it was like Broadway — the last read-through — and the governor was on that call, making recommendations and chiming in to offer guidance about a patient subsidy fund for medical cannabis patients," Romero said.

Those on the inside described the exhausting and sometimes frantic drive to push through legalization in New Mexico — a process that began March 20, when the regular session ended, and the beginning of the special session Tuesday. The end result was a controversial bill that won sometimes grudging approval in both the House and Senate.

In a telephone interview Thursday, Lujan Grisham, a longtime supporter of legalizing cannabis, said the legislation, which she plans to sign, will become an economic driver for the state. According to the bill's fiscal impact report, the industry could create about 11,000 jobs and create tens of millions of dollars in new revenue.

"Small farmers, growers, entrepreneurs have been looking for a way to successfully compete in this arena, and now they are going to," she said.

Regarding her own role in crafting the legislation, Lujan Grisham — who declined to say when she'll sign the bill — noted she joined the meetings Sunday to "hear how they were answering questions, whether there were any lingering issues" as legislators readied for the start of the special session.

She said she made a few suggestions. She said there was a lot of "hand-wringing" about whether to drop a provision creating a fund to subsidize medical cannabis costs for low-income residents — a point on which the group got stuck.

She said she assured the group she would find a way to do that through her executive powers, and the clause was dropped from the bill.

The bill to legalize cannabis, House Bill 2, was probably one of the most amended, vetted and criticized pieces of legislation in the January-to-March regular session, and the echoes of those fights lingered into the special session.

"This bill gets amended every four to six hours," said Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, during the bill's last go-round in a Wednesday hearing comprising all 42 members of the Senate. His comment was not intended as a joke.

Even as it made its final run through that committee before moving on to the Senate floor for final approval, Cervantes continued to take issue with legal provisions within the bill he believed needed to be fleshed out.

The bill, he said then, was "not ready."

Cervantes did not take part in its final Senate vote.

The sponsors, their supporters and the governor disagreed with Cervantes' assessment.

"I think it's ready," Lujan Grisham said, adding she had yet to sign a bill in her first two years as governor that made her look back and say, 'You know, it's just not right.' "

In a committee hearing on the bill during the regular session last month, Cervantes pointed out sloppily presented language that would have allowed parents to legally give cannabis to their children and would have permitted adults to have far more cannabis in their possession than the 2-ounce limit the sponsors intended.

That language has been changed.

"The bill is better because of the process it went through," said Rep. Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, the main sponsor of the bill. "For people who say this bill has been amended 12 times, so it's not a good bill, that is complete nonsense. That is what the legislative process is for.

"We are supposed to amend bills. If you get bills with no amendments, I would be worried — especially a bill of this magnitude," he added.

Emily Kaltenbach, senior state director of the national nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, said the legislation to legalize cannabis and a companion bill that allows for expungement of criminal records tied to cases involving cannabis offenses make up a "good package of bills."

HB 2 "was written, rewritten and amended so many times and the final product, I believe, is the right model for New Mexico right now," she said.

The 178-page bill — cut down from an original draft of 183 pages — lays out a timeline and framework for building a recreational cannabis industry in New Mexico under the oversight of the state Regulation and Licensing Department.

New Mexicans may start using and growing cannabis for personal use in July. Licenses for cannabis businesses will be issued no later than April 2022.

By that time, next year's 30-day legislative session, slated to start in mid-January, will have come and gone.

Martínez, Romero and others involved in the process said it's possible they will find out by then if they need to amend the legislation in that session based on input from the Regulation and Licensing Department, which will begin creating guidelines for the cannabis program by fall.

"We're going to have to wait until Regulation and Licensing promulgates the rules to tell us what needs to be adjusted over the next few months," Martínez said. "They are the ones on the ground implementing the programs, so they should be able to tell us what is working or not."

Speaking by phone Thursday, Cervantes said there's a "likelihood" the bill will find itself back in the 2022 session.

"There's a substantial amount of work to be done, and I think we can do that next year," he said.

He said he's made suggestions to the bill's sponsors and supporters that he hopes they will work into the bill before next year and "before they become problems."

Lujan Grisham said she could "go either way" on the issue of bringing the bill back for more work next year.

"Maybe we find something that will need a technical amendment," she said. "It's possible but hard to predict. I wouldn't ignore making a technical fix or identifying something that isn't working on the ground."