Legalization is coming to New Mexico.
When the Legislature convenes in January 2020, one of the legislative priorities to be addressed—thanks to the cultural and business acumen of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham—is the question of legal recreational cannabis.
The bill, albeit in a substantially altered form that nobody really liked, almost made it on to the governor’s desk last year. But one of the bill’s biggest failings involved an idea that many found unworkable: The condition that recreational cannabis must be sold from state-owned and -regulated retail outlets turned out to be quite a turn-off to even longtime legalization advocates.
Well, after much wrangling over the language of regulation, the bill failed to even get a vote on the Senate floor. Wait until next year was they all said.
Well next year is almost here. And in order to make a declared legislative priority into reality, Governor Lujan Grisham commissioned a Marijuana Legalization Working Group to work out problems with legislation that have prevented success in the past.
After several meetings and a lengthy report to the governor, the panel of public servants said they were done. That’s when Weekly Alibi asked to chat with working group chairman Pat Davis.
Davis is also an Albuquerque City Councilor. This is what he told us about the path to legalization in The Land of Enchantment.
Weekly Alibi: For readers just now tuning into cannabis legalization and regulation issues in New Mexico, could you discuss the formation of the Cannabis Legalization Working Group, as well as the group's objectives?
Pat Davis: This past summer, Governor Lujan Grisham convened a work group of stakeholders including legislators, cities, law enforcement, cannabis producers and patients to recommend a proposal for the legalization of cannabis. The governor charged us with finding solutions to protect children, support law enforcement, ensure strong safety and testing regimens, protect patient access to medical marijuana and—uniquely—to open up the new cannabis industry to people and communities who were overcriminalized by old drug policies.
What sort of challenges has the task force run into while pursuing its objectives?
Forty-seven states have some form of medical or legal cannabis programs, but none look the same and no one has found the right balance for all of those big issues. Take protecting patient access to medical marijuana when recreational marijuana is allowed. Every state has seen a drop in patient participation and loss of supply.
What successes have been encountered or helped along by the working group?
People are pointing to two big differences in the way we arrived at our recommendations. First, we included law enforcement up front. In other states where they were not a part of developing the bill and law enforcement issues like drugged driving and black market sales became problematic. Although most law enforcement don’t fully support legalization, they’ve helped us devise recommendations to fund programs to help them identify and prosecute those who abuse the new laws, while respecting the rights of everyone else to use it legally and responsibly. And, for the first time anyone can remember, we opened the legislative process up to formal public input. Residents provided input on each of the 100-plus questions we posed to the working group, adding hundreds of pages of public comment that we’ve used to refine our recommendations. But we’ll also be watching the equity provisions very closely. We will be recommending strategies to ensure that new licenses don’t just go to those who already have large piles of cash necessary to open a marijuana business. People with former drug convictions, small farmers transitioning from low-income crops, and those living in low-income communities can all prosper given the right access to this huge new industry.
Has communication with legislative forces that have formerly voted against recreational use been fruitful?
It is clear that everyone understands that recreational cannabis is coming to New Mexico. We’ve really tried to focus everyone on designing a system that addresses everyone’s concerns. As one of our elected officials said at our meeting, “If you make a bill that has support from law enforcement, the ACLU and defense attorneys, you should pass it.” That’s what I think we’ll be able to present to the governor later this month.
What regulatory issues have been addressed by the task force? Have these particular issues been resolved?
First, we know this industry is changing rapidly. In principal, we supported the ideas that issues around product testing, who should be able to get a license and how local communities should be able to limit or permit local sales should be left to regulators and local communities so they can evolve with the industry. But, as always, the details matter so we’re excited to gauge public reaction to the final proposals.
If legalization of recreational cannabis happens next legislative session, when would the law be enacted?
That will be up to the legislature, but our regulatory process requires almost a full year just to develop the rules and we won’t open it up until all of the public safety components are in place. Best case, the full legalization program would not come online until 2021, at the earliest.
How would the medical marijuana industry be affected? Can those effects be mitigated?
As I mentioned earlier, every state has seen a drop in patient participation and loss of supply when recreational cannabis is introduced to the market. Our research found that most of those states treated their medical program differently or as an afterthought to legalization. Instead, we are proposing something very different: Every recreational producer or retailer should have to reserve a supply of plants for medical patients before getting a recreational license. That puts patients first and ensures that any supply shortage will be on the recreation side, not medicine. We can also subsidize the medical program with new recreational marijuana taxes. Again, the details matter and I’m excited to present those to the governor. But our recommendations would allow us to lower patient costs by as much as 20 percent.
How much revenue does New Mexico stand to gain in the first year after legalization of recreational cannabis?
Estimates go up each year as we see recreational programs open in more states. Low estimates show that we would start with $350 million in first-year sales while some estimates put total recreation and medical sales closer to $900 million in four to five years. Conservative estimates show that we would create 11,000 new jobs—more than education and mining combined. That’s a big deal for New Mexico!
Do any barriers remain?
This is just the first step.We will make recommendations about best practices and how best to set up this program, but it will be up to the public to convince legislators that we are right.
Any comments of your own?
Throughout this process, we’ve come to realize that New Mexico is ready to do this and that we can do it well. It’s an exciting time for this idea!