- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 10, 2020

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - State legislators are rekindling efforts to open New Mexico to recreational marijuana production and sales, with an emphasis on economic opportunity amidst the turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic.

State Rep. Javier Martinez told a panel of lawmakers Tuesday that he will introduce legislation in 2021 to regulate and tax recreational marijuana, hewing closely to a proposal that won House approval earlier this year but died in the Senate without a floor vote.

Elections this year ousted several conservative-leaning Democratic state senators who opposed past legalization efforts. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last week reiterated her support for recreational marijuana as an opportunity to expand and diversify the state economy.

“I think the prospect for a recreational bill to pass this year are looking much better,” said Democratic state Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque, a sponsor of past recreational marijuana and drug decriminalization initiatives. “What matters most is just the numbers (of potential supporters) in the New Mexico Senate. I think we just have better numbers.”

Candelaria, a medical marijuana patient and attorney who represents current cannabis business license holders, urged the Lujan Grisham administration to lift what he called artificial limits on medical marijuana production to avoid shortages and costly delays in new tax revenue if recreational marijuana is approved by the House and Senate, where Democrats hold majorities.

Across the country, public support for marijuana reforms was on prominent display in the Nov. 3 election as four states - New Jersey, South Dakota, Montana and neighboring Arizona - approved ballot measures to open up recreational cannabis markets. Mississippi approved the creation of a medical marijuana program.

New Mexico doesn’t initiate legislation by ballot measures, though constitutional amendments are approved by referendum.

Martinez said his new bill will aim to safeguard the state’s 13-year-old medical marijuana program from disruptions, levying taxes of up to 20% on sales and create business opportunities for minority and low-income communities adversely affected by the drug war and criminalization of marijuana. The bill has not yet been published.

Duke Rodriguez, CEO of the state’s largest medical cannabis distributor, urged lawmakers to think broadly about the future of the local marijuana industry as a production juggernaut and magnet for tourists and cannabis patients from Texas, despite federal prohibitions against transporting cannabis across state lines.

“It’s going to change New Mexico in ways we can’t imagine,” said Rodriguez, who shaped state regulation of marijuana through numerous lawsuits. “At some point, we’re going to have legalization across this country.”

The discussion rankled other lawmakers, who raised concerns ranging from the scarcity of water for crops to the health affects of marijuana on the mental development of young adults.

Democratic state Sen. Bill Tallman of Albuquerque cast doubt on the potential for job creation and government income.

“I’m not convinced that we’re going to grow a lot of marijuana here because we have a shortage of water here, and it’s getting worse,” he said.

Republican House minority whip Rod Montoya of Farmington said he is wary of efforts to commute sentences and expunge past drug convictions, arguing it would undermine efforts to stamp out smuggling and black markets.

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