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Las Cruces City Council Passes Measure of Support for Cannabis Legalization Bill

Michael Hernandez

Las Cruces City Council passed the resolution to support legalizing cannabis in New Mexico on a 6 to 1 vote. Mayor Ken Miyagishima opposed the measure.

“I just believe that this is the most irresponsible legislation that the Legislature has put forth in my 30 years that I’ve been monitoring politics in New Mexico,” Miyagishima said.

The Cannabis Regulation Act is a bill working its way through the state Legislature during the 2020 legislative session. Similar legislation failed the previous year.

If passed, the bill would legalize cannabis use for adults 21 and over and charge a 9 percent tax on cannabis products. The legislation restricts use to areas where cannabis is sold and prohibits sales near schools, churches and daycare centers. It would also allow local jurisdictions to limit the density of licenses, operating hours and marketing by retailers.

District 3 Councilor Gabe Vasquez read from a commentary he wrote with District 4 Councilor Johana Bencomo outlining their support.

“The war on cannabis has been a disaster, especially for communities of color in New Mexico and across the country. And it’s time to end the practice of targeting and criminalizing people of color for using a substance more benign than alcohol, simply because it’s socially accepted,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez added he and Bencomo are impressed by recommendations from the legalization work group appointed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last summer.

“Considerations and concessions for clear labeling and robust testing, law enforcement training and resources, social equity and small-business opportunity, local control and local revenue as well as maintaining and enhancing the medical cannabis program make up what we think is the best bill that lawmakers can put together today,” Vasquez said.

Medical marijuana has been legal in New Mexico since 2007–and a cannabis decriminalization law passed in 2019 that reduces penalties for possession in small amounts.

Credit Michael Hernandez
Las Cruces Mayor Ken Miyagishima opposes the resolution supporting cannabis legalization in New Mexico during a city council meeting on Feb. 3, 2020.

But for District 4 Councilor Bencomo, decriminalization also represents another step toward racial equity for people of color.

Additionally, she challenged an argument made by some critics that legalization aggravates cases of drug addiction and homelessness.

“The rule of thumb has really been to criminalize those folks anyway, right? Forever and ever we’ve criminalized people experiencing addiction and people experiencing homelessness over and over again,” Bencomo said. “And I feel like as a collective if we actually cared about these folks we would have been funding mental health services and social welfare programs at the same rate that we fund law enforcement in this country.”

Some military veterans at the meeting supported the resolution, including Chad Lozano, secretary of the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients Advocate Alliance.

Lozano, a medical cannabis user who served on the governor’s work group, said he feels veterans in New Mexico would benefit heavily from legal cannabis.

“I lost my sister to opioids, she was a veteran herself and I went through cannabis to not put my parents through that again and to help veterans alike," Lozano said. “Because I watched her deteriorate completely in front of my eyes because of the opioids and cannabis has never done that to me. And it’s saved my life and I’ve helped other veterans save their lives with cannabis too and that’s what I hope to do."

Even if cannabis is legalized, Lozano has concerns about supply and said there aren’t enough producers to serve medical and recreational users.

Roughly 80,000 patients are enrolled in the state's medical marijuana program–and that number is projected to grow to 100,000 in 2020. A provision in the cannabis bill requires medical patients to be served first in case of a shortage.

Veteran Kristi Jackson is a member of El Paso NORML, a marijuana legalization group in Texas. Jackson told city council about her experience while stationed at the Fort Campbell Army installation in Kentucky.

“I was sexually assaulted twice within my first 4 months of being there,” Jackson said.

A mental health specialist during her military service, Jackson began using alcohol and other drugs to cope with her trauma. Once she began using medical cannabis to treat her post-traumatic stress disorder, Jackson said her life changed.

Colt DeMorris and Kristi Jackson, members of Texas marijuana legalization group El Paso NORML, stand with Chad Lozano, secretary of the New Mexico Medical Patients Advocacy Alliance. The three spoke in favor of legislation to legalize recreational cannabis during a Las Cruces City Council meeting on Feb. 3, 2020.

“And within a few weeks I was myself again. I was able to remember what my children’s milestones were again. I was drugged for 10 years taking opioids and prescribed medications and drinking on top of that. If you want to make something illegal that’s going to kill people, make it alcohol, make it opioids–but not marijuana. That saved my life,” Jackson said. “I’m a better mom, I’m a cannabis card holder, I have my personal production license and I make my own products. I am very health aware. I take very good care of myself and I went back after this, after I stopped using opioids and I got my master’s degree."

But public testimony and comments by city councilors didn’t sway the mayor’s vote. Miyagishima said he hopes the bill is defeated in the state senate.

“I know that’s probably not what you all want to hear, but I just think that the money that this generates, the additional problems it’s going to generate, it’s just… not something that I personally want to be supportive of,” Miyagishima said.

Even so, state lawmakers will cast the deciding votes. As it stands, recreational cannabis is legal in 11 states and Washington D.C. while medical marijuana is legal in 33 states.

Michael Hernandez was a multimedia reporter for KRWG Public Media from late 2017 through early 2020. He continues to appear on KRWG-TV from time to time on our popular "EnviroMinute" segments, which feature conservation and citizen science issues in the region.