Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Sen. Joe Cervantes
By ROBERT NOTT
The New Mexican
The Senate Judiciary Committee has voted 6-4 to table a bill that would have legalized the recreational use of cannabis for New Mexicans over the age of 21.
When legislators table a bill, it almost always means it will die. And with just one week left in this year’s 30-day legislative session, it’s unlikely the bill will rise from the dead.
Two Democrats joined four Republicans in tabling the measure. The vote came around 10 p.m. Wednesday after some 90 minutes of debate on the issue.
Legislators voting against the bill voiced various concerns, from its impact on residents’ health, the potential for DWI offenses with marijuana and the complex and often vague language detailing the specifics of how the new law would be enacted.
Sen. Joe Cervantes, D-Las Cruces and chairman of the committee, brought up a number of issues regarding ambiguities in the bill’s language, including a provision that an authorized member of a labor organization would have to play a role in the legal cannabis industry.
“I don’t think organized labor should have the final say over who gets a license and who doesn’t,” Cervantes told Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat and one of three sponsors of the bill.
He also questioned the bill’s need to create a number of advisory committees under the direction of various state divisions.
Ortiz y Pino and others who spoke in favor of the bill talked about its potential to increase state revenues, create 11,000 jobs and regulate an industry that would otherwise remain a black market in the state.
“This bill gives us a framework on how to regulate cannabis,” Ortiz y Pino told the committee. “Without this bill, it’s the Wild West.”
Along with a bill that gives law enforcement the right to petition a court to take firearms away from an individual who is considered a risk to himself or others, the recreational cannabis bill was one of the most contentious of this year’s 30-day session.
But unlike the gun control bill, which sailed through the Senate fairly rapidly and moved through one House committee hearing with relative ease, Senate Bill 115 barely got out of a Senate Public Affairs Committee on a vote of 4-3 in late January before staggering to the judiciary committee late Wednesday night.
Ortiz y Pino said he and the bill’s other sponsors have been meeting with supporters and opponents to make it more palatable. Earlier this week, Ortiz y Pino said he thought the bill had a 33 percent chance of making it to the legislative finish line this year.
Cervantes only heard the bill after working through a number of other bills and leading a lengthy line-by-line rework of a bill sponsored by Sen. Linda Lopez, D-Albuquerque, that would prohibit retailers from selling cigarettes and e-cigarettes to anyone under the age of 21.
Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Ojo Caliente, joined Cervantes and Republican Sens. William Payne and Mark Moores of Albuquerque, Ron Griggs of Alamogordo and Gregory Baca of Belen in tabling the bill.
On the Democrat side, Sens. Bill O’Neill, Mimi Stewart and Daniel Ivey-Soto of Albuquerque joined Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, in opposing the tabling motion.
Lopez was not present for the vote.
After the vote, Stewart expressed dismay and disappointment in the way the committee handled the bill, asking why it was not heard earlier in the session and earlier in the evening. No one on the committee offered a response.
“I don’t like what we’ve done here tonight,” she said.
Among other measures, the bill would have imposed a 9 percent tax on cannabis sales and created a regulatory advisory committee to help make up rules for implementing the program.
The implementation plan included coming up with a measure for police to conduct an oral fluid test on motorists to see whether they are driving under the influence of cannabis, and for police to compile an annual report on the number of arrests, citations and other violations tied to those using the drug.
Following the vote, the governor, who supported the bill, issued a statement: “Legalized recreational cannabis in New Mexico is inevitable. The people of New Mexico have said they want it. A diversified state economy demands it. Poll after poll has demonstrated that New Mexicans want a 21st century economy and want cannabis to be part of it.
“I am disappointed but not deterred by tonight’s committee motion. The door remains open. We will keep working to get it done.”
Ortiz y Pino said he plans to keep working on the legislation and perhaps present it at interim legislative committees during the year.
“This was a valuable experience, as painful as it was, as frustrating as it was,” he told the committee.