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High hopes, uphill climb for marijuana bill

February 12, 2019

Voters in neighboring Colorado legalized recreational marijuana in 2012. Many politicians in New Mexico have maneuvered to enact a similar law ever since.

All of them have failed.

Now advocates of legalizing recreational marijuana are accelerating their lobbying campaign as the state legislative session moves into its final month. They have no chance to win unless they can pick up votes from Republicans or conservative Democrats in the 42-member state Senate.

It looks like an uphill climb.

“I think we have more important issues to tackle,” Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants, said in an interview.

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, said lobbyists see him as a swing vote on marijuana.

“I won’t support the bill at this point,” Brandt told me. “I don’t care if someone smokes pot. My biggest concern with marijuana is children. I’m concerned about the edibles, the situations when children in Colorado consumed marijuana that adults had in the house.”

Sanchez has become the Senate’s most eloquent orator in arguing that more money from a multimillion-dollar federal grant program should go to impoverished rural schools. He said that project is his priority.

House Bill 356 to legalize recreational marijuana hasn’t crossed his desk or his mind.

As with any bill, he said, he would study the proposal for legalizing recreational marijuana if it clears the House of Representatives and moves to the Senate.

But he is among a sizable bloc of legislators who haven’t embraced the idea that recreational marijuana is an important initiative.

“I’ve always voted against it,” Sanchez said.

In 2016, he joined five other Democrats and all 18 Republicans in the Senate to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment that would have legalized recreational marijuana. The final tally was 24-17.

Democrats now control the Senate by a greater margin, 26-16. But all six Democratic senators who voted against the marijuana initiative are still in office.

Unless at least one of them reverses course, the marijuana bill would need support from a Republican to clear the Senate.

Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, sponsored the marijuana initiative in 2016. He is cautiously optimistic that his side will have the votes this time.

“We’ll see when push comes to shove. But I think they might support it,” Ortiz y Pino said.

Ten states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana. Of them, only Vermont made the change by an act of its state legislature. All the rest were public referendums.

Three years ago, Ortiz y Pino tried to get a recreational marijuana initiative on the statewide ballot. He had no other choice.

Then-Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican who made her reputation as a prosecutor, had promised to veto any bill to legalize recreational marijuana. Ortiz y Pino’s only hope was to keep Martinez at bay by getting his proposal on the ballot.

Now, with Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham in the Governor’s Office, Ortiz y Pino hopes the marijuana measure can be approved by the Legislature.

Unlike Martinez, Lujan Grisham has kept open the possibility of signing a bill for recreational marijuana.

“She has not made it a platform, though,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Albuquerque.

Ivey-Soto voted for the marijuana initiative three years ago.

“My district tends to favor the idea of recreational marijuana,” he said. “But it would be a close vote in the Senate. I would say it would come down to one or two votes.”

Lobbyists and advocacy groups know they can get the marijuana bill through the House of Representatives. Democrats have a 46-24 advantage in that chamber.

That leaves the Senate as the battleground.

To some degree, the division there is generational. New Mexico’s longest-serving senator is John Pinto, 94, one of the famed Navajo Code Talkers in World War II. Pinto, of Gallup, has been in office since 1977. He was among older Democrats who voted against legalization of marijuana three years ago.

So lobbyists are working to persuade Brandt and a handful of other Republicans in hopes of tipping the vote.

Converting Republicans, even the possible swing votes, might be a tougher sell than they expect.

Brandt started his political career as a school board member, so he knows kids pretty well.

But at age 50, he admits his experiences are limited in another respect. He has never used marijuana.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

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