- Associated Press - Friday, March 19, 2021

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - A proposal to legalize recreational marijuana in New Mexico appeared to falter in the final hours of a 60-day legislative session as the Senate postponed a floor debate and turned to other bills.

Legislators had until noon Saturday to send the legalization initiative to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Advocates for broad marijuana reforms have clashed amid divergent approaches to complex issues of taxation, public safety, regulatory oversight and licensing rules.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said Friday evening that the governor would call a special session of the legislature later if the legalization effort does not come to fruition this week.

“There are a lot of priorities left to be heard, and only so many hours left,” Sackett said in an email. “The governor is prepared to call a special session to get cannabis done and done right. It’s important enough and we’re close enough that the governor firmly believes it will be worth an extra effort.”

Lujan Grisham has pushed for the broad legalization of marijuana in efforts to spur employment and economic recovery from the pandemic.

A House-approved bill would legalize cannabis sales and consumption for anyone 21 and older, levy a new 12% tax on cannabis and provide support for communities where the criminalization of pot led to aggressive policing.

New Mexico flirted with cannabis legalization in the 1990s, when then-Gov. Gary Johnson challenged taboos against decriminalization in defiance of Republican allies. A medical marijuana program founded in 2007 has since attracted more than 100,000 patients.

Several hardline opponents of legalization in the state Senate were voted out of office by Democrats in 2020 primary elections.

In the November election, neighboring Arizona was among four states to approve recreational marijuana by ballot initiative.

New Mexico’s Constitution doesn’t allow direct voter approval of statutes, leaving lawmakers to follow in the footsteps of Illinois and Vermont by legalizing through the legislative process.

The stalled bill would provide opportunities for small craft-marijuana producers to maintain 200 plants under a micro-license system that combines cultivation, manufacturing of pot products, sales and lounges for the social consumption of cannabis.

Medical marijuana would become tax-free, with provisions for subsidized cannabis for poor patients. And past drug convictions of any kind would not preclude people from securing an industry license.

Senate amendments to the bill would initiate a study of cannabis production levels in other states and monitor the New Mexico market to ensure “market equilibrium.” State regulators could put a freeze on cannabis production levels and new licenses.

Democratic Sen. Joseph Cervantes fears the proposed regulatory framework will create a powerful, government-protected monopoly with unforeseeable consequences. He warned against the creation of a new breed of business cartel like liquor license holders that have closely guarded their access to the marketplace.

The Senate discarded a Republican-sponsored bill that emphasized low taxes in an effort to stamp out illicit weed.

Republicans including state party chairman and former Congressman Steve Pearce say legalization only complicates the state’s struggle with high rates of poverty and opioid addiction. But several Republican state legislators have openly advocated for legalization with safeguards for roadway and workplace safety.

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