Let voters have chance to weigh in on legalization

Feb 13, 2020

Credit Walt Rubel

Commentary:  Progress at the New Mexico Legislature tends to come incrementally, and often takes years.

The system would seem to be intentionally designed to frustrate rapid change.

Dozens of bills in this year’s 30-day session will never get heard because they are not directly tied to the budget. Hundreds more will die without an up-or-down vote when the clock strikes noon on Feb. 20.

The effort to legalize marijuana sales began eight years ago, in 2014, when former Rep. Bill McCamley of Las Cruces introduced a House memorial to study the effects of legalization. That passed, and I assume the study was done.

In 2015, presumably with the new study in hand, McCamley introduced the Cannabis Revenue and Freedom Act. House leaders clearly weren't pleased. The bill was assigned to five committees, three more than for most bills. And it never got a hearing in any of them.

McCamley tried again in 2016, but that was a 30-day session and the bill was dismissed because it wasn’t tied to the budget.

The first signs of progress came in 2017 when McCamley’s bill got a hearing in the House Public Affairs Committee. They didn’t endorse it, but they didn't kill it either. The bill had just three committee referrals that year. It was put to rest in the Business and Industry Committee, but the discussion had started.

That same year, the Legislature passed a bill sponsored by Joseph Cervantes to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Violators can be charged a $50 fine, but it would be a civil penalty and would not impact their criminal record.

Those attempts came when Susana Martinez was governor, and there was an understanding that anything passed by the Legislature would surely be vetoed.

That changed when Michelle Lujan Grisham was elected governor. She was ambivalent about legalization at first, but was on board by the end of the 2019 session. She put together a task force to prepare for this year’s bill, and has thrown her support behind it.

But as I write this on Sunday afternoon, the chances look dim for passage this year. The Senate bill has cleared one committee, but still needs to get through both Judiciary and Finance.

Cervantes, who is now chairman of the Judiciary Committee, was a guest on KRWG’s show Your Legislators this week. He told host Anthony Moreno that the committee needed to focus on the most pressing issues in the closing days of the session, and he doesn’t think that includes marijuana legalization.

The House bill is still awaiting its first committee hearing. 

During his interview on KRWG, Cervantes was asked if we could put the issue to a vote, as has happened in other states. We don’t really have a mechanism for that kind of referendum, he said.

But we do have elections coming up in November during which every seat in both the House and Senate will be up for grabs.

I know it will be disappointing for many if the bill fails this year. But that would give voters a chance to be heard before these changes are made.

One final note. The City Council held a long, emotional meeting where they came out in support of a marijuana bill that will likely fail. The County Commission held a long, emotional meeting where they came out in opposition to a red-flag gun bill that will likely pass.

There may be some value to giving people a chance to speak out on bills without driving to Santa Fe. But there’s little evidence that these local resolutions have any real impact in Santa Fe.

Walt Rubel can be reached at