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Pirtle optimistic cannabis bill will pass

State Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, speaks at an April 2019 meeting of the Chaves County Federated Republican Women. Senate Bill 288, sponsored by Pirtle, which would legalize recreational cannabis in New Mexico, passed the Senate Committee on Tax, Business and Transportation by a vote of 10-0. (Daily Record File Photo)

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With little more than a week left in the legislative session, state Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, is confident that his bill to legalize recreational cannabis in New Mexico can still become law.

State lawmakers will wrap up the 60-day session and adjourn March 20, but Pirtle said Wednesday senators are working long hours to get bills through committees and to the floor.

“The last two nights we’ve gone to 11 (p.m.) or even almost midnight the night before,” he said.

The optimism projected by Pirtle, whose Senate district includes parts of Chaves, Eddy and Otero counties, comes after his legislation, Senate Bill 288 (SB 288), cleared its first hurdle Tuesday, passing the Senate Tax, Business and Transportation Committee on a bipartisan 10-0 vote.

SB 288 next heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Pirtle said he believes his position as the lead Republican on the committee can help move it through committee.

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If enacted into law, SB 288 would make New Mexico the 16th state to legalize recreational cannabis. Doing so has been a top agenda item for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, citing the industry’s potential for job creation and as a source of state revenue.

Under SB 288, individuals age 21 or older in New Mexico would be allowed to use, possess or purchase up to 2 ounces of cannabis or 16 ounces of cannabis extract at a time for recreational purposes.

Recreational cannabis products would be subject to a total 14% tax, which includes the state’s existing 8% Gross Receipts Tax, plus a 6% tax on cannabis products. The tax would not apply to purchases of cannabis for licensed medical cannabis patients.

A percentage of the revenue from the tax would go toward drug recognition expert field certification training for law enforcement and the purchase of roadside impairment tests designed to detect cannabis impairment in individuals.

Under the legislation, regulations and rules for licenses for recreational cannabis producers as well as dispensaries and lounges that sell such products would be set by an eight-member Cannabis Control Commission.

Should it be signed into law, sales of recreational cannabis would begin July 1, 2022, Pirtle said.

Changes to SB 288

The bill heard by the committee Tuesday has several revisions from that which was introduced by Pirtle in February.

One new provision adds language that prevents the Cannabis Control Commission from placing limits on the number of licenses issued or plants a licensee can produce or sell.

Pirtle said that change is part of his goal when it comes to legalization: to redirect consumers of cannabis away from illicit dealers and toward a legal and regulated market that can meet their needs.

“And so the goal is to put the illicit market out of business, so to do that, we need to have enough production to keep prices low,” he said.

A requirement that businesses selling cannabis be at least 1 mile apart from one another to prevent a “green mile,” or a glut of recreational cannabis businesses in one area of a community, was deleted.

“That was removed because there is other language that allows the municipalities to make that decision,” he said.

In its current form, Pirtle said, individual municipalities can decide whether they want to have recreational cannabis dispensaries and lounges all concentrated in one area.

“Every community has different desires for how they regulate business. So I think it’s important that we have local control,” he said.

Unlike the earlier version, the draft of SB 288 passed by the committee Tuesday does not include a six-month opt-out provision, during which time individual communities or counties could prohibit licensed recreational cannabis producers or businesses from operating.

The change was made, Pirtle said, to avoid a checkerboard system of regulations that differ by county, reminiscent of regulations that once governed alcohol sales.

“And so we thought it important that if we were going to do this as a state, that we do it statewide,” he said.

Two similar bills

SB 288 was one of two bills to legalize recreational cannabis taken up by the Senate Taxation, Business and Transportation Committee Tuesday.

The other bill, House Bill 12 (HB 12), sponsored by state Reps. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque; Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe; and Deborah Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, passed the Committee on a 7-4 vote. That bill was already voted out of the New Mexico House of Representatives 39 to 31.

It is next slated to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Senate Finance Committee before hitting the Senate Floor.

Pirtle though said if HB 12 comes to the floor, he is going to vote against it, citing the higher tax rate and high cost of complying with regulations that he said would in turn allow the illicit market to continue to thrive.

According to the fiscal impact statement on HB 12, the tax rate under that bill on cannabis products, when including the Gross Receipts Tax, could be as high as 21%.

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

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