By STEVE TERRELL
A Republican state senator on Thursday introduced a bill that would legalize recreational marijuana but, unlike a Democratic House bill, would have the state operate retail marijuana stores.
Sen. Mark Moores of Albuquerque said in a phone interview Thursday that, considering the number of western states that have adopted laws treating marijuana more like alcohol, legalization in New Mexico is inevitable.
“It’s a just matter of how we want to do it,” he said. “We should do it in a smart way.”
Moores said his proposal would take steps to reduce harmful effects of marijuana, “while allowing adults the liberty of using marijuana if they want to.” Under the bill, those over the age of 21 could buy marijuana at state-run stores.
Moores said he and co-sponsors of Senate Bill 577 — Sens. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, and Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque — looked into the regulatory approaches taken by other states. Moores said the legislators liked how states such as Utah and New Hampshire regulate liquor. “You can only buy alcohol at state-operated stores,” he said.
That’s a major difference from another bill working its way through the Legislature, House Bill 356, sponsored by Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque.
Another difference is that SB 577 would not allow for homegrown marijuana. Martinez’s bill would allow people to grow cannabis at home after getting a license from the state.
Moores’ bill would establish an excise tax of 4 percent for retail sales of marijuana products — on top of existing state and local taxes. Cities and counties would be allowed to charge another 4 percent excise tax on cannabis sales.
Revenue would go to state and local governments for use in law enforcement and behavioral health and substance-abuse treatment efforts.
The tax called for in Moores’ bill is lower than that in the House bill, which calls for a state excise tax of 9 percent while also allowing cities and counties to impose an excise tax of up to three percent.
Medical marijuana sales would not be subject to these taxes under either bill.
The senator’s bill would establish an eight-member state Cannabis Control Commission that would regulate legal marijuana production, testing and sales, including quality control and consumer protection standards, and set standards for packaging.
The legislation would require cannabis items be “labeled and placed in a resealable, child-resistant package.”
Moores’ bill does not include any changes for the decade-old Medical Cannabis Program. “The governor made it very clear during last year’s election that she wants any legalization bill to protect the medical marijuana program,” Moores said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also has said any such legislation should deal with workplace intoxication, public safety, under-age consumption and regulation of edible marijuana products.
Emily Kaltenbach, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance — which is backing Martinez’s bill — said Thursday that she’s happy that several Republicans are now supporting marijuana legalization. But she said she has some qualms about SB 577.
“It doesn’t provide any social justice provisions,” Kaltenbach said. “There’s nothing that provides expungement like the bill we’re backing.” HB 356 has a section directing that all arrest and conviction records of marijuana trafficking cases more than two years old be destroyed and removed from statewide criminal databases.
Duke Rodriguez, who heads Ultra Health, the biggest medical cannabis company in the state, also has problems with the bill but commended the Republican sponsors. “These guys are really sticking their necks out,” he said. “I’m impressed that three Republicans have acknowledged the need for legalization.”
The major objection Rodriguez has to SB 577 is the part that would have the state run retail outlets for non-medical sales. “The state has problems sending [Medical Cannabis Program] cards on time,” he said. “Are they really ready to build and open a couple of hundred stores across the state?”
Rodriguez said that he and the other licensed producers in the state are “trailblazers” who in the course of a decade have built a $100 million-a-year industry. ” It’s not fair to exclude medical producers from trying to profit from recreational cannabis sales, he said.