NM lawmakers face looming challenge to marijuana legalization

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This year's 60-day legislative session has 20 days left, and lawmakers in the Senate have four proposals to consider.

On Saturday, members of the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee hashed out those initiatives with the bills' sponsors for nearly four hours. It was the first time the bills received a hearing in the Senate — a point brought up by Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho.

"This was supposed to be a priority issue and yet we have 20 days left and we’re just hearing it," he said, urging his fellow members on the committee to move at least one of the four bills forward to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration to get the ball rolling. 

But in the end, the sponsors of the four proposals — House Bill 12 and Senate bills 13, 288 and 363 — were told to get together over the next week and come up with just one proposal for the committee to vote on March 6. 

That will leave lawmakers just two weeks to move the chosen initiative through the Senate Judiciary Committee and then to the Senate floor for a final vote. 

"Hopefully, you can come up with some compromise," Sen. Benny Shendo Jr., a Jemez Pueblo Democrat who serves as chairman of the committee, told the sponsors of the four bills.

All of the bills would legalize the use of 2 ounces of recreational cannabis or 16 ounces of cannabis extract for adults 21 years and older. All would allow New Mexicans to apply for a license to grow and sell cannabis. And all would set up some sort of regulatory commission to oversee the program, including issuing and setting fees for licenses.

Legalizing recreational cannabis could lead to the creation of some 11,000 jobs statewide, according to fiscal impact reports. 

All of the bills would impose an excise tax, though those rates range from 6 percent to 20 percent. 

One of the proposals — Senate Bill 13 — would impose a yet-undecided cap on production. The other three do not. Some legislators had problems with the no-cap proposal, saying it's important for the state to regulate that. Others voiced no such concerns. 

Another initiative — Senate Bill 288 — would allow local jurisdictions to opt out of selling cannabis if they wish. That bill also includes language prohibiting cannabis shops from operating within a mile of one another. Some lawmakers expressed support for those ideas, while others did not or suggested counties and cities initiate operating limits themselves. 

Only one legislator — Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs — brought up the issue of water. Most studies say cannabis requires about a gallon of water per day per pound. 

Kernan said she wanted to see more information on how much water acreage would be necessary for cannabis producers. "That's something we certainly need to know when trying to determine whether to cap or not to cap," she said. 

All the legislative endeavors would require cannabis growers to obtain water rights. 

Among other points, proponents say cannabis legislation is inevitable and would help cut back on the black market. Several Senate Republicans, including Brandt, said it's time to move forward with such initiatives. (No Republicans in the House voted for HB 12, which cleared that chamber on Friday.)

Supporters also say legalizing cannabis would bring much needed revenue into the state. Still, initial estimates that legalizing cannabis would generate at least $50 million in tax revenue the first year after it is legalized were tempered by both the fiscal impact reports — which put that figure closer to the $12 million to $15 million range — and economic analyst Kelly O'Donnell, who told committee members $25 million is more realistic the first year.

But O'Donnell said that figure could exceed $100 million within five years. 

The bills' sponsors vowed to get together to work something out over the next week.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said that was the best option.

Otherwise, he said, "there's a chance we end up with nothing if we can't get all the pieces lined up."

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