Sen. Jacob Candelaria
By DANIEL J. CHACÓN and ROBERT NOTT
With the end of the 2021 legislative session looming promptly at noon Saturday, an issue that has dominated the Capitol spotlight for the past eight weeks remains in limbo: an effort to legalize the recreational use of cannabis.
Advocates say there’s still hope for the Legislature to pass a measure in the next three and a half days and get it to the desk of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has voiced her support.
“An hour is a lifetime in legislative time,” Sen. Jacob Candelaria wrote in a text message.
“The Senate is doing what we do: deliberate and get major legislation like this in the best shape it can be,” added the Albuquerque Democrat, who sponsored one of several bills outlining a system for cannabis production and sales for adults over 21. “I’m confident a bill will end up on the governor’s desk, but I expect to see floor amendments regardless.”
Out of five competing measures — two introduced in the House of Representatives and three in the Senate — one House bill and one Senate bill are still in play. More than a week ago, lawmakers on the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee voted to advance both of them, with an expectation that their sponsors would agree on a compromise.
While House Bill 12, sponsored by three Democrats, passed the full House late last month, Senate Bill 288, introduced by Republican Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell, has cleared just one Senate committee.
Last week, Rep. Javier Martínez of Albuquerque expressed confidence he and other co-sponsors of HB 12 could come to terms with Pirtle within a few days. It was unclear Tuesday if that had occurred.
Martinez and Pirtle could not be reached for comment.
The Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to hold hearings on both bills Wednesday — but they were nearly last on a list of some dozen pieces of legislation waiting to be heard by the committee before time runs out.
The committee’s Monday agenda initially included the bills, but they were later removed. They did not show up on the committee’s Tuesday agenda.
Efforts to reach the committee’s chairman, Democratic Sen. Joe Cervantes of Las Cruces, were unsuccessful.
Cervantes said earlier in the session he had concerns about passing such legislation.
A similar effort stalled last year when the Senate Judiciary Committee tabled a bill just a week or so before the end of the legislative session.
Emily Kaltenbach, senior state director of the national nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, said she still believes the issue will get a hearing.
“We’re just waiting,” she said Tuesday. “Our expectation is it will be heard in Judiciary tomorrow.”
Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham, wrote in an email Tuesday that “establishing an essential new revenue source for the state and creating thousands of jobs for New Mexicans by legalizing recreational cannabis remains a top priority for the governor.
“We remain hopeful a final agreement can be reached, given how close we are, and how important this is and would be,” Sackett wrote.
Legalizing recreational cannabis could lead to the creation of some 11,000 jobs statewide, according to fiscal impact reports.
Both remaining cannabis bills would legalize possession of up to 2 ounces of cannabis or 16 ounces of extract for adults 21 and older.
Both also would allow New Mexicans to apply for a license to grow and sell cannabis.
HB 12 would task the state Regulation and Licensing Department with most of the program’s oversight, while SB 288 would set up an independent regulation commission to do that job.
There are some significant differences between the two pieces of legislation. The Senate bill would place a total 6 percent excise tax on cannabis sales, compared to the House bill’s 20 percent tax.
The Senate bill also would impose a $10-per-plant fee for anyone who wants to grow cannabis for sale, while the House bill has an “up to $50” fee per plant.
Another difference: HB 12 is far closer to the finish line. The Senate Judiciary Committee would be its last stop before a vote on the Senate floor. If it passed the chamber, it would return to the House for approval of any changes before being sent to the governor for her signature.
If the committee instead advanced the Senate version, it would require a hearing in the Senate Finance Committee before it could move to the full Senate — and then a long process in the House as the session’s final hour grew closer.