LAS CRUCES — Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham plans to make a push to legalize marijuana for recreational sale and use this upcoming legislative session. The Las Cruces City Council got a look at a policy plan and was able to ask questions at a Monday work session.
The plan was put together by a work group appointed by Lujan Grisham and released in October. Albuquerque City Councilor Pat Davis, the group’s chair, gave the presentation to the council Jan. 13. A bill to fully legalize marijuana was introduced in the state Senate Jan. 16.
Here’s how the plan would work and how it would affect Las Cruces.
Who has legal weed?
New Mexico is among 33 states and Washington, D.C. that has legalized medical use of marijuana for afflictions such as chronic pain, nausea and post-traumatic stress disorder. Currently, 11 states have legalized sales and use of recreational marijuana — notably, Colorado on New Mexico’s northern border.
The governor plans to make a push for legalization this upcoming legislative session, which starts Jan. 21 and runs for 30 days.
A bipartisan legalization bill that would’ve opened state-run pot shops to limit the number of marijuana businesses stalled in the state Senate last year when it was met with resistance from current medical dispensary owners.
What’s being proposed?
The plan would legalize use and sale of recreational marijuana for anyone age 21 and older with an ideal start date of July 2021. Small time possession of up to one half ounce of weed was decriminalized last year. Possession now gets you a $50 civil fine, not jail time.
The plan suggests limits that’d keep taxes on recreational pot at roughly 17 to 19 percent and would make medical marijuana tax-free, while entirely subsidizing it for low income patients.
To mitigate children’s access to marijuana, the plan proposes “conspicuous and consistent” warning labels to indicate the product contains THC, marijuana’s psychoactive compound, and child-resistant packaging.
The plan also calls for food-grade testing of marijuana products, a ban on using cartoon characters and minors in advertising and the establishment of youth prevention and education programs.
A notable aspect of the plan is the prohibition of any way for a local government to opt-out of legal weed, unlike what has been done in other states. While the plan won’t allow any place to ban the sale of recreational pot, Davis emphasized local zoning rules can be used to control the number of stores in an area and where they’re located.
Opt-out zones can become breeding grounds for illicit markets, the Canadian Press has reported.
The policy plan suggests legal weed revenue be reinvested in housing, local business and education for marginalized communities. It also suggests promoting industry opportunities to local tribes, nations and pueblos.
“Equity has been an afterthought in every legalized state, but New Mexico has the opportunity to start right,” the plan states.
That equity also includes expungement of criminal records for people who have marijuana possession convictions and allowing people with prior marijuana convictions to hold jobs in the industry.
In other states where weed has been legalized, big consolidated firms have eaten up and crowded out small businesses. That’s why the governor’s plan insists on keeping licensing fees low, to about $500 a month, so small businesses and entrepreneurs have easy entry into the industry.
The plan also calls for vertical and horizontal limiting of licensing to prevent monopolies and a subcategory of licenses for “micro business” in the cannabis industry so that individual manufacturers, cultivators or retailers can set up locations without investing a ton of capital.
Some rural communities don’t have medical cannabis dispensaries, so patients end up driving miles and miles to get their medication. The plan remedies this by making licenses mandate serving both medical patients and recreational users. That means if you want to start a recreational dispensary, expect to serve medical users as well.
If there’s a shortage, licensees must serve medical patients first, according to the plan. Revenue from each plant grown would fund subsidies for medical producers and low-income patients, since medical cannabis not covered by insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid.
The plan proposes a $3.9 million low-income medical cannabis fund to assist patients in accessing the cannabis they need, funded from a percentage of each adult-use plant grown, a “per-plant fee.”
How much money would it bring in?
It’s estimated that in the first year, the marijuana industry will bring in $55 million in additional state and local revenue via taxes. Separately, the work group estimates the industry could do $318 million in recreational sales in the first year.
The 17 percent tax proposed is a combination of a 5 percent state excise tax, a 5.125 percent state gross receipts tax, a 5 percent local excise tax and a 2 percent local gross receipts tax.
Each tax would fund a different state or local program, which could range from regulation, Department of Health programs, law enforcement discretionary funds or local business funding.
Davis told the council Monday the final tax could be up to 19 percent.
Keeping the tax at that level will help the state compete with Colorado, which charges a 30 percent total tax on marijuana products, 15 percent each for an state excise and sales tax.
Davis mentioned the possibility of tourists driving to New Mexico from El Paso or Mexico for marijuana.
What it means for Las Cruces
While a portion of the state’s demand for legal pot may be found in northern population centers like Santa Fe and Albuquerque, Davis told the council Monday they have nowhere to grow it.
That means Doña Ana County and the rest of the agricultural southern half of the state would have a new crop on its hands, according to Davis.
“People in Albuquerque and Santa Fe are dying to buy a lot of cannabis but we don’t have the space to grow it,” Davis aid. “We’re counting on you and your folks (in southern New Mexico) to grow all the cannabis we need.”
The work group estimates that in its first year, legal cannabis would add 11,000 jobs in-state. They also estimate the industry would become the 15th largest in New Mexico. Looking at the state’s existing hemp and medical marijuana industry, it’s already bigger than chile, the proposal notes.
In Las Cruces, Davis said the group estimate about $1.16 million in additional revenue for the city in the first year.
As for workers, the plan calls for treating pot use like alcohol in the workplace — unless an employee is working while impaired, at-home use should be allowed.
If an employer wants to enact a “moral clause” prohibiting employees from smoking marijuana off hours, they must provide notice during hiring and in writing. It’s legal to enact such a clause in New Mexico but employers don’t often do so.
Law enforcement officers would be prohibited, as would other federally certified positions. This is because marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.
What do Las Cruces police think?
Under legal weed, law enforcement will need a new tools to determine if someone is impaired while behind the wheel.
That’s why the plan suggests investing in training officers statewide in ARIDE — Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement — so they can spot the signs of high drivers. Additionally, the plan seeks to fund a pilot program to develop an oral saliva swab tool that’ll tell a police officer if a driver is under the influence, similar to a breathalyzer for alcohol.
In remarks to the city council Monday, Las Cruces Police Deputy Chief Paul Brock said no state standards exist for gauging how much cannabis is acceptable in a driver’s system.
Brock also said LCPD warns legal marijuana could increase youth access to the drug.
There’s also the fear that marijuana dispensaries will become big targets for potential burglars.
Brock also warned Las Cruces could expect more emergency room visits if children accidentally get a hold of marijuana or if an adult ingests too much. Additionally, drug-sniffing dogs currently trained by the police to detect marijuana would need to be replaced.
Kyle Williamson, a special agent in charge of the El Paso division of the Drug Enforcement Administration — which also covers all of New Mexico, said marijuana is an illegal drug for a reason, calling it addictive, prone to abuse and almost impossible to use responsibly.
“From a federal law enforcement standpoint, it is a dangerous drug,” Williamson said. “Some people say marijuana isn’t addictive, it doesn’t lead to the use of harder drugs and legalization will not lead to more use … juvenile, adolescent use, adult use (in Colorado) has all increased.”
Williamson cited a 2019 Colorado study that showed an increase in traffic fatalities where the driver was impaired with marijuana. In those instances, however, just a quarter of the drivers had only marijuana in their system. Most were also impaired with alcohol, other drugs or a combination of the three.
Williamson said legalization could exacerbate New Mexico’s homelessness problem and said it won’t stymie black markets as proponents argue, pointing to an increase in violent crime in Colorado. How much of an effect marijuana has had on Colorado’s violent crime rate is debated.