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New Mexico seeks pot legalization amid discord on oversight

February 27, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this June 11, 2019 file photo store manager Ruby Amsden, left, attends to medical marijuana customer and retired nurse Jan Stewart, who uses cannabis to relieve pain associated with her recovery from bone cancer and help with sleeping, at the Minerva medical cannabis dispensary in Santa Fe, N.M. A panel of doctors and other health care professionals is recommending increasing the amount of marijuana that can be purchased by participants in New Mexico's medical cannabis program. The advisory board voted Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, in favor of nearly doubling the limit to 15 ounces over 90 days. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee,File)
FILE - In this June 11, 2019 file photo store manager Ruby Amsden, left, attends to medical marijuana customer and retired nurse Jan Stewart, who uses cannabis to relieve pain associated with her recovery from bone cancer and help with sleeping, at the Minerva medical cannabis dispensary in Santa Fe, N.M. A panel of doctors and other health care professionals is recommending increasing the amount of marijuana that can be purchased by participants in New Mexico's medical cannabis program. The advisory board voted Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, in favor of nearly doubling the limit to 15 ounces over 90 days. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee,File)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Several proposals to legalize marijuana are competing for support in the New Mexico state Senate with three weeks left to send a bill to the governor, amid widespread support among lawmakers for creating a taxed and regulated market for recreational sales.

Efforts to legalize marijuana took center stage Saturday as a Senate panel grappled with how the state might effectively stamp out illicit marijuana, prevent child access and foster a competitive marketplace and job growth. The committee aims to produce a compromise bill with broad support within a week.

The debate marked a tantalizing moment for proponents of marijuana legalization after voters last year ousted hardline opponents that held Democratic leadership posts in the state Senate.

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“What we would like is for this to be recognized for what it is, something that adults can use responsibly, keep it out of the hands of kids, and their are provisions in these bills that do that and make sure that in the future this industry can really flourish,” said Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino of Albuquerque. “I’m really delighted to see the effort to consolidate the good points from all these bills into something we can pass.”

Democrats remain divided on the state’s approach to legalization.

The state House approved a bill Friday from Democratic Rep. Javier Martínez of Albuquerque that emphasizes social justice components such as subsidized medical cannabis for the poor and aims for a combined tax rate of roughly 20% on retail sales.

The House shunned proposals to extend tight restrictions on the number of production licenses on the quantity of pot grown that would mimic oversight under the current medical cannabis program.

Critics note that system has made medical cannabis more expensive in New Mexico than neighboring Colorado and Arizona and warn against creating a legal cartel of marijuana business license holders.

“Our bill provides for a robust opportunity in an equitable way,” said Democratic Rep. Andrea Romero, of Santa Fe, a co-sponsor the House-approved proposal. “Reducing the harm that comes from the criminalization of cannabis is seen throughout our bill.”

That initiative closely resembles a proposal from Democratic state Sen. Jacob Candelaria that provides for state and local excise taxes on recreational marijuana, lifts limits on cultivation and aims to open up new niches for small-scale craft marijuana outlets, resorts with permitted cannabis consumption areas, and businesses that cater to home-grow hobbyist.

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Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque urged his colleagues to reject caps on supply and the number of production licenses. He also urged colleagues to take cannabis legalization legislation a step further with provisions that decriminalize possession of small amounts of other illicit drugs.

A separate proposal from Republican Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell is shifting the debate toward an emphasis on highway and workforce safety and stamping out the illicit markets through relatively low taxes — a 4% excise tax rate combined with current gross receipts taxes on sales and business transactions.

“The first goal when legalizing cannabis, I believe, is to put the illicit market out of business,” said Pirtle, whose bill would create a cannabis control commission with participation from law enforcement.

“We 100% protect our employers’ right to a zero-tolerance, drug-free workplace,” Pirtle said.

Pirtle and other Republican legislators from communities near Texas say constituents are wary of a possible proliferation of pot shops that cater to marijuana tourism on main streets in small communities. In response, Pirtle’s bill would place a 1-mile (1.6-kilometer) buffer between marijuana retailers.

The state’s constitution doesn’t provide for legalization by ballot initiative, putting the Legislature firmly in charge of legalization and related issues of taxation and law enforcement.