- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 11, 2014

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A proposal to let New Mexico voters decide whether to legalize recreational marijuana stalled in a legislative committee on Tuesday and is likely dead for the year.

The Senate Rules Committee deadlocked 5-5 on whether to send the constitutional amendment to another committee for consideration. The proposal would have made it legal for adults 21 and over to possess and use marijuana. It would have been left to the Legislature to later establish a system for regulating and taxing marijuana.

The proposal likely would have faced difficulty in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, particularly because of opposition from rural and conservative lawmakers.

Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, an Albuquerque Democrat who sponsored the measure, said he saw little chance of the issue being revived this session because it’s unlikely any committee members would change their votes before the Legislature adjourns late next week.

He vowed to renew the proposal in next year’s Legislature.

“We’ll just keep trying until it happens. I think it’s inevitable,” said Ortiz y Pino.

Colorado and Washington state have legalized marijuana. Pot stores opened in Colorado last month, and sales are expected to start in Washington later this year.

Four Republicans on the committee opposed the measure and were joined by Democratic Sen. Clemente Sanchez of Grants. Five Democratic senators supported the measure.

Had the Senate and House approved the proposal, it would have gone straight to voters to decide in the November general election. A constitutional amendment, unlike a bill that changes state law, doesn’t go to the governor to be signed or vetoed. Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor, opposes legalizing marijuana.

Several opponents objected to using the state constitution to decide the marijuana issue.

“I just don’t think smoking a bowl is a constitutional right,” said Sen. Mark Moores, an Albuquerque Republican. “It’s not a constitutional right to smoke cigarettes. It’s not a constitutional right to smoke pot.”

Proponents said pot legalization in Colorado and Washington state reflected a changing public attitude toward marijuana use across the country.

Emily Kaltenbach, New Mexico’s state director with the Drug Policy Alliance, a group seeking to change the nation’s drug laws, told lawmakers that New Mexico voters were ready to voice their opinions on legalizing marijuana.

“It’s time for this debate,” Kaltenbach said. “Let’s design a system that works for New Mexicans.”

New Mexico’s sheriffs opposed the proposal.

Jack LeVick, executive director of the New Mexico Sheriffs’ Association, said sheriffs had unanswered questions about how states that have legalized marijuana are coping with changes to laws.

“We prefer to wait two or three years to see what happens in Colorado and Washington first,” LeVick said.

Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, expressed concerns that the measure would create a black market where users could get cheaper marijuana over regulated pot.

He said he also worried that legalization could have harmful effects as marijuana becomes readily available.

“Are we going to have children come to school stoned?” he asked.

Ortiz y Pino said creating a system to legally produce and distribute marijuana would take money away from drug kingpins. There’s already a black market for drugs, he said, and teenagers currently have no problem obtaining marijuana.

After the vote, Martinez spokesman Enrique Knell said, “The governor has always said that the New Mexico constitution is not the appropriate place to consider such a sweeping policy change, and the many complications and unforeseen consequences that would come with such a change.”


AP Writer Russell Contreras contributed to this report from Albuquerque.


Follow Barry Massey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bmasseyAP

Follow Russell Contreras on Twitter at https://twitter.com/russcontreras

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