BY DAN MCKAY / ABQ JOURNAL STAFF WRITER
Thursday, March 7th, 2019 at 10:41pm
SANTA FE — New Mexico lawmakers late Thursday plunged into debate on a bill that would push the state closer than ever toward legalizing recreational use of marijuana.
At the center of the action was a proposal in the state House — a product of bipartisan, bicameral talks involving House Democrats and Senate Republicans.
Rep. Javier Martinez, an Albuquerque Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, said the debate was a “watershed” moment in the movement to legalize the recreational use of cannabis in New Mexico.
“This is truly a compromise bill,” he said late Thursday as he unveiled a set of amendments to the original proposal.
If approved, House Bill 356 would be the first recreational marijuana proposal ever passed by one of New Mexico’s legislative chambers.
Legalization has faced skepticism from some moderate Democrats in the Senate, where previous bills have failed.
But three Republican senators have been working with Democrats this session on a legalization proposal, providing a narrow path to approval if they can carry a bipartisan bill through both the House and Senate.
Martinez said Thursday that the House bill now includes a variety of ideas originally contained in the Senate version — including a plan to offer retail sales of marijuana largely at state-run stores. Private businesses could sell recreational cannabis in certain circumstances, such as if a state store isn’t nearby.
The compromise, Martinez said, also would require people to keep receipts showing they purchased their marijuana legally, and they could carry only 1 ounce of cannabis and couldn’t grow it on their own — in contrast to the previous version of the House proposal.
Martinez said he and his colleagues gave up quite a bit in the spirit of compromise. Republican Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell — a co-sponsor of the Senate bill — sat with Martinez during the House debate as an expert witness.
There were signs that the proposal might succeed in winning bipartisan support.
“I like the state control,” Rep. Kelly Fajardo, R-Belen, said during the debate. “I know this took a lot of work.”
The strength of state-run stores — an idea that’s central to the Senate bill — is that it would give the state strong regulatory controls and make it easier to keep cannabis products away from children, supporters said.
Supporters said the compromise bill also makes it clear that employers could still maintain drug-free workplace policies.
Sales of recreational marijuana could begin in July 2020.
More changes to the legislation, of course, might be in store.
But each chamber must approve identical legislation by noon March 16 to send a bill to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
“With nine days left in the session,” Pirtle said in an interview, “there’s plenty of time.”
Lujan Grisham has said she is open to legalizing recreational marijuana, but only if there are safeguards to prevent use by children, protect the medical marijuana program, and address workplace intoxication and driving under the influence.
Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office Jan. 1, succeeded Republican Susana Martinez, who opposed legalization.
Getting the legislation to the governor’s desk may hinge on winning over some Republican senators.
Besides Pirtle, Republican Sens. Mark Moores of Albuquerque and Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho have been working on marijuana legalization. They have been working with Democratic senators, too.
But their proposal, Senate Bill 577, hasn’t advanced as far as the House bill has. It has cleared two committees and must pass one more before reaching the full Senate for consideration.
“The possibility of bipartisan compromise between the House and Senate is very real,” House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, told reporters Thursday.
Sounds hokey to carry receipt and no personal grows. Bummer. Hopefully, it's not set in stone. Like the House DEM version better....better for the state, better for consumers. But amazingly after 6-7 failed attempts at legalizing, a phrase you don't hear often....'bipartisan compromise'.
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