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Pirtle appointed to cannabis legalization group

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State Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, speaks at a monthly meeting of the Chaves Count Federated Republican Women in April at the Elks Lodge in Roswell. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Friday that Pirtle was among several people appointed to a Cannabis Legalization Working Group. (Alex Ross Photo)

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New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham appointed a local legislator to a group tasked with helping create a regulatory framework for legalized recreational marijuana within the state.

Republican Sen. Cliff Pirtle, Roswell resident and two-term state senator, has been appointed to the Cannabis Legalization Working Group by Lujan Grisham, according to a news release Friday announcing the establishment of the group.

Pirtle – whose senate district includes portions of Chaves, Eddy and Otero counties — said Saturday he is glad to be appointed to the group and as a conservative, he can bring a unique perspective to the effort.

“Legalization is inevitable in New Mexico, but it is important that Republicans have a seat at the table as we create enabling legislation and regulations,” Pirtle said.

He added he will contribute concerns about potential effects legalization could have on public safety and issues such as preventing access to marijuana products by children and people driving under the influence of the substance.

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The Working Group — which will be led by Pat Davis, Albuquerque city councilor, and consists of policymakers, state cabinet secretaries, elected officials, medical experts and marijuana industry personnel — will study proposals throughout the summer and fall to legalize and regulate cannabis.

Group members will look at the best practices taken up in other states and localities that have legalized recreational cannabis to ensure any legalization effort includes regulations regarding public safety and addresses workplace concerns. The release states recommendations will be made by the group to Lujan Grisham to be included in legislation that will be introduced next year.

“There are open questions about how legalization can work best for New Mexico. This group will answer those questions, and we will arrive at the next session prepared,” Lujan Grisham said in the release.

The release lists the group’s other members as: state Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque; James Kenney, secretary of the New Mexico Environment Department; Kathy Kunkel, secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health; James Girard, senior economist at the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department; Matthew L. Garica, chief counsel in the office of the governor; and Matt Baca, senior counsel with the office of the New Mexico Attorney General.

Other members include: Kim Stewart, Dona Ana County sheriff; Les Rubin, finance director of Picuris Pueblo; Rachael Speegle of the Verdes Foundation; Ryan Gomez of PurLife Management Group; Jim Griffin of Everest Apothecary; Emily Kaltenbach of the Drug Policy Alliance; Shannon Jaramillo of Cannabis New Mexico Staffing; Grace Philips, general counsel of the New Mexico Association of Counties; Lorin Saaverda of Southwest Capital Bank; Sam Baca, a construction industry representative along with representatives of Presbyterian Healthcare Services and United Food and Commercial Workers.

Lujan Grisham stated after the Legislature adjourned in March that she will place legalization of recreational cannabis on her call for the 30-day legislative session that will begin in January 2020.

Pirtle was a sponsor of Senate Bill 577 (SB 577), introduced in the last session. The bill would have allowed an individual age 21 or older to possess and use up to one-half ounce of cannabis or 4 grams of cannabis extract for recreational purposes.

Under the proposal, people would not be able to grow cannabis for their own personal consumption and private businesses would not be able to produce or sell it. Instead,  a state-appointed commission established to issue licenses, put in place regulations for the production, packaging and sale of cannabis, as well as operation of state-operated stores and lounges.

SB 577 would impose a 17% retail sales tax on legally sold cannabis, with revenue going toward state and local efforts related to law enforcement, behavioral health and substance abuse programs. The legislation was not brought up for a vote by the full Senate before the end of the session.

Similar legislation — House Bill 356 (HB 356) — narrowly passed the New Mexico House of Representatives, 36-34, but did not come up for a full vote in the New Mexico Senate.

The push to legalize recreational cannabis has exposed rifts in both parties on the issue.

In all, 10 House Democrats joined all Republicans to vote against passage of HB 356. On the Republican side, SB 577 was sponsored by Pirtle and two other Republican state senators: Mark Moores of Albuquerque and Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho.

However, some conservatives within the party — such as Steve Pearce, the former U.S. Representative who was the party’s candidate in an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2016 — voiced strong opposition to cannabis legalization.

So far, 11 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational cannabis.

New Mexico is one of 32 states where medical marijuana is legal, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a group that advocates for the relaxation of laws criminalizing cannabis.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or at breakingnews@rdrnews.com.

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