SANTA FE, N.M. — A panel of legislators delved into the uncertain market economics of legalizing recreational marijuana and thorny concerns about public health on Wednesday, in a prelude to a rapid-fire legislative session that could open the doors to recreational cannabis in New Mexico.
A legalization work group assembled by Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is pitching an oversight system that would limit state and local taxes on recreational marijuana to roughly 17% and license producers for as little as $500 a month with additional per-plant fees.
Medical marijuana would become tax-free and be sold separately at all dispensaries, under the recommendations, in an effort to ensure affordable access to patients coping with conditions such as nausea and pain from cancer. About 78,000 people participate in the medical program.
Legislators listened at a public hearing as University of New Mexico economics professor Sarah Stith cautioned against legalization measures that might make retail prices uncompetitive with Colorado’s recreational market, through restrictions on supplies or excessive taxation.
“You can’t push that tax too high or it’s just going to go on the black market,” she said.
The work group’s chairman, Albuquerque City Council member Pat Davis, told lawmakers to expect more than $50 million in tax revenues within a year from recreational marijuana sales — and at least $94 million as the market stabilizes in five years.
He emphasized the potential for economic development in rural farming communities, a $5 million set-aside for spending by local law enforcement and public safety precautions such as clearly identifiable labeling of cannabis sweets that contain the psychoactive ingredient THC — to prevent child access.
None of it persuaded Republican state Rep. Martin Zamora of Clovis that the state should go forward with legalization. He objected to new burdens placed on law enforcement, said marijuana farmers won’t be immune from losses and raised the specter of a pregnant woman consuming recreational marijuana.
“I could sit here and rant and rave all day long and I intend to do that when it comes to the legislation part,” Zamora said. “I just want more factual stuff — more scientific, more medical, in a more direct way.”
In a counterpoint, Rep. Antonio Maestas of Albuquerque said marijuana “prohibition simply does not work.”
A bipartisan legalization bill this year won House approval before stalling in the state Senate. Both chambers are controlled by Democratic majorities.
Democratic Senate President Mary Kay Papen said Wednesday she was “not really enthusiastic” about the prospect of legalization but could change her mind.
Papen, who is being challenged in the Democratic primary, said a large share of tax proceeds from marijuana sales should be allocated by the state to health care spending.
Lawmakers led by Democratic Rep. Javier Martinez of Albuquerque are in the process of drafting a legalization bill for the state’s 2020 legislative session — limited to 30 days beginning in January.
Lujan Grisham has highlighted her own concerns about recreational marijuana and roadway and workplace safety, along with precautions against child access.