When Will New Mexico Fully Legalize Cannabis?
With two measures on the table in the state capitol, advocates are optimistic that legal marijuana isn’t more than a few years away.
Published on January 23, 2018

New Mexico state capitol; photo via zrfphoto

With Vermont just having legalized cannabis through its state legislature for the first time in the history of marijuana reform, the precedent has been set for other states without ballot initiatives to do the same. New Mexico, however, has a system in place whereby legislators can legalize cannabis themselves, or they can vote to allow citizens to do it through a constitutional amendment.   

If New Mexico were to legalize cannabis through a constitutional amendment, the legislature would first have to approve a resolution that would go onto a ballot for consideration by the people. This resolution for the ballot, however, requires a higher threshold of votes within the legislature than an ordinary bill.

New Mexico has alternating 30-day and 60-day legislative sessions. This year’s session, which commenced this month, is just 30 days, so the likelihood of getting any cannabis reform resolution or bill through the legislature is low, says Emily Kaltenbach, New Mexico state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. Moreover, Republican Governor Susana Martinez, who term ends at the end of the year, has indicated that if cannabis legalization hit her desk, she would not sign it.

"We've been working on legislation regardless of the governor's support to start testing what policy issues and provision are palatable to the legislature in anticipation of having a friendlier administration in 2019," Kaltenbach says.

If and when New Mexico legalizes, the state would do so through a tax-and-regulate program at the offset, being modeled after nearby states' legal cannabis programs, she adds. "There are provisions in there we think are important for racial and social justice that include strong expungement provisions for people who have prior marijuana convictions, like what's happening in California," says Kaltenbach. "The ability for people who have had prior convictions to be part of the commercial industry, and the idea that there will be some funding to go back into the communities most harmed by the War on Drugs — those are two really important pieces of the bill."

As one of the last states to recover from the recession, New Mexico needs to be growing its economy in a healthy way, she says. "A lot of folks see [marijuana] tax revenue can be applied to doing that," says Kaltenbach. "Lots of people travel to Colorado and purchase from the legal market. Imagine all that tax revenue being siphoned out of New Mexico and into Colorado."

Statewide support for taxing and regulating cannabis like alcohol has polled over 60 percent, and the state already legalized medical marijuana back in 2007. Meanwhile, the tax-and-regulate bill itself is repped by Javier Martinez in the state House, while the constitutional amendment resolution has been introduced year after year by Senator Gerald Ortiz y Pino.

The amendment would simply legalize adult use of cannabis, Ortiz y Pino explains, while subsequent legislation would need to cover all the finer details of implementation. "This is my fifth try," he says. "Some people say they think the time has come, but it doesn't belong in a constitutional amendment and that it should be a piece of legislation. Others say the Colorado experience shows it's too dangerous to do this." Other legislators won't vote on it based on their personal history, such as family members struggling with addiction or other mental health problems. "It's a slow educational process. We pick up more support every year," Ortiz y Pino says.

Both Ortiz y Pino and Martinez agree New Mexico is only a few years away from legalization. "My sense is that it will probably be through legislation [as opposed to an amendment]," says Martinez. "We're not very ballot-happy here in terms of putting things [to a referendum]. But never say never, if that's a more clear path, then I support it."

Martinez's bill would allow adults 21 and over to possess up to two ounces of marijuana at home, one ounce on their person, and to grow up to six mature plants. Localities would have the option to opt out of sales, but would also have the option to add an additional five percent tax for local projects. According to Dr. Kelly O'Donnell, a New Mexico-based economist, legalization could bring in up to $400 million in the first year alone and create more than 11,000 new jobs.

"You've got to remember New Mexico is a minority-majority state, and our community has been gravely impacted by drug addiction and drug abuse. We've lost generations of people to heroin in rural parts of the state," says Martinez. "Marijuana has, I think, developed a very troubled reputation; a lot of people see it as a gateway drug. They've subscribed to those myths pushed by the War on Drugs, and that's a big part of the reason I'm carrying this bill."

Martinez's family is originally from Juarez, Mexico; he's lost family members to the Drug War. "I think one of the problems we've had across the country has been that the legalization movement has been led by white people," he says. "That's a problem in a state like New Mexico, especially when you have Native Americans and Mexicans impacted by the War on Drugs altogether." There are families in New Mexico who've been there for generations: "They didn't cross the border, the border crossed them," Martinez explains. "New Mexico is the heroin capital of the world; a little community up in Chimayo has one of the highest per capita overdose rates in the country. In some of those communities, talking about legalizing a drug raises a lot of questions, and there's a lot of trauma involved." That's where education comes into play — informing people that states with greater access to marijuana actually have lower rates of opioid overdose.

Even with a 420-unfriendly presidential administration, advocates on both sides of the aisle remain optimistic. Within New Mexico's Republican party, support for legalization depends on age. "The 45-and-under crowd, nobody cares. When you get over that, you're dealing with 80 years of lies and propaganda, and it becomes difficult," says Heath Grider, board member of the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients Advocates Alliance, of the New Mexico hemp board, and Contract Grow New Mexico. "We lobby lawmakers; we go to Santa Fe every chance we get. We'll legalize within two years after we get a new governor."

Madison Margolin
Madison is a New York/Los Angeles-based writer who specializes in cannabis coverage. Her work has been featured in Playboy, the LA Weekly, and other publications.
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