New Mexico State Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces, said legislation to legalize recreational marijuana sales may be split into two bills when the Legislature convenes for a special session Tuesday, March 30.
One bill would create the framework for taxing and regulating the new industry, and a second would deal with the social justice issues in the legislation, including the expungement of prior convictions for marijuana sales or possession.
“You can understand how some legislators might vote for the licensing bill, but be against criminal justice reforms; and conversely, some vote the criminal justice reforms and against the licensing bill,” Cervantes said. “There are some Republicans who have said they support the principle of legalization, but may have problems expunging records and letting people out of jail.”
The legislative effort to legalize marijuana began in 2015 when former representative and current New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions Sec. Bill McCamley introduced the Cannabis Revenue and Freedom Act. House leadership showed its displeasure by giving the bill five committee referrals. It never even got a hearing.
Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, picked up the torch when McCamley left the Legislature, getting a bill through the House in 2019. This year, House Bill 12 made it all the way to the Senate floor. But it got there in the final days of the session, and leaders were worried that if they opened debate on that bill, it would shut out other necessary legislation.
Cervantes opposes the bill, and is widely seen as being responsible for it not reaching the Senate floor in time for a vote.
“My position is that New Mexico, with our crime problem, and education, and poverty and the economy, we already have enough already on our plate,” he said.
But, Cervantes said the delay in moving the bill through the Judiciary Committee was caused by flaws in the draft of the massive legislation, which is nearly 200 pages long, and not an intentional attempt to derail the bill.
“The Judiciary Committee hearing was an eye-opening experience for a lot of people to, in fact, find out what’s in the bill itself,” he said. “That’s the hazard in coming to Judiciary. We get beyond the broad policy goals and get into the bill itself. That’s why the Judiciary Committee exists, is having the bill examined with the idea that it might become a law.”
Cervantes said there were two provisions in the original bill that demonstrated its flaws. One would have allowed parents to give marijuana to their children. The other would have allowed children to grow an unlimited number of marijuana plants, he said.
Cervantes questioned how the bill could have made it through the New Mexico House of Representatives without those provisions being removed.
“I suspect it was not carefully read,” he said. “Some folks are frustrated with me and the Judiciary Committee, but it takes hours and hours of study. There are no shortcuts.”
Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, who is vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, noted that the bill did not go through that committee this year. It was heard by the Health and Human Services Committee and the Taxation and Revenue Committee on the House side. She said legislators knew it the bill would end up in Senate Judiciary and were confident committee members would examine it carefully.
Cadena, who attended a Democratic caucus meeting Sunday, March 28, confirmed that the plan is to introduce two cannabis bills in the special session. She said the legalization bill would start on the House side, and the expungement bill would start on the Senate side.
“This has been an ongoing conversation, and we’ve heard from a lot of different people with really important perspectives and different points of view,” Cadena said. “I think New Mexico is ready to be a national model as we figure out a respectful and equitable path to legislation.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called for a special session to reconsider the issue of legalization as soon as the regular session ended March 20.
“Legalized adult-use cannabis is one of the best moves we can make in our work to build a bona fide economy in New Mexico,” Lujan Grisham said. “And, New Mexicans are more than ready. Poll after poll has demonstrated that our state wants this opportunity.”
Cervantes said that, while he opposes legalization, his primary concern now is to ensure that what gets passed does not have unintended consequences.
“I don’t advocate the policy, but I’m called upon to help write the legislation to help advocate the policy,” he said. “I don’t support it. Nevertheless, I don’t want to see bad law enacted.”
Lujan Grisham has also added a second item to the special session, dealing with the Local Economic Development Act (LEDA). She is seeking legislation to allow a portion of taxes on construction projects of $350 million or more to be placed into the LEDA fund.
Cervantes and other lawmakers have questioned the timing of the special session, set to start three days before Good Friday. That would seem to provide an incentive to get things done quickly.
“It’s scheduled for Easter Week for a reason,” he said. “Our last special session was Thanksgiving Week.”
Walter Rubel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.