New Mexico won’t follow the lead of Colorado and other Western states that have legalized marijuana as a recreational drug — at least not this year.
State senators on Sunday night voted 24-17 against a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed people 25 and older to buy and smoke marijuana. The measure also would have legalized industrial hemp, a cousin of the marijuana plant, that has myriad commercial uses.
All 18 Republicans and six Democrats voted against the proposal — which, had it passed the Senate and House, would have let voters decide in November whether to legalize marijuana and hemp — after a debate lasting about 40 minutes. Both advocates and opponents of the marijuana measure used crime as their leading argument.
Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, sponsored the proposal and said marijuana would help the economy and lessen the strain on public agencies. Legalizing recreational pot would mean fewer low-level drug arrests, fewer court cases and “increased ancillary revenue” from businesses that would spring up because of the pot industry, Ortiz y Pino said.
Several Democrats made similar arguments for legalization.
“This is an economic driver,” said Sen. John Sapien, D-Corrales. He said layoffs at Sprint and other companies in metropolitan Albuquerque had weakened the economy, and that marijuana legalization would be a benefit as taxpaying pot businesses opened their doors.
The counterpoint came from Sen. Bill Sharer, R-Farmington. He said crime in Denver had increased since Colorado voters legalized marijuana and it went on sale at commercial outlets in 2014. Revenue in Colorado may have risen since marijuana went on the market, but costs to taxpayers also have increased because of the drug, he said.
Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, successfully amended Ortiz y Pino’s bill to change the age at which people could buy marijuana to 25 instead of 21. Brandt said medical research shows that the human brain is not fully developed until 25. Senators approved his amendment on a 24-18 vote.
But Brandt then joined the rest of the Republican senators and a quarter of the Democratic caucus in voting against the measure.
Voting against its were Democratic Sens. Clemente Sanchez of Grants, John Arthur Smith of Deming, Joseph Cervantes and Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, and George Muñoz and John Pinto of Gallup.
Legalization of industrial hemp, a second component of Ortiz y Pino’s proposal, received no attention from senators during their debate.
Both the state Senate and the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted last year for a bill that would have authorized hemp research at New Mexico State University in anticipation of the federal government legalizing the plant for industrial use. But Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor, vetoed the hemp bill.
Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, said industrial hemp would be a profitable crop for the state’s farmers. Industrial hemp is not a recreational drug. It is used to make everything from carpeting to auto dashboards.
Ortiz y Pino said Sunday night’s debate on marijuana legalization was the first time the measure made it to a legislative floor vote in New Mexico. He predicted it wouldn’t be the last.
Prohibition didn’t dampen America’s thirst for alcohol, Ortiz y Pino said in arguing that outlawing marijuana simply costs the state revenue while tying up police with minor drug cases.
Contact Milan Simonich at (505) 986-3080 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow his Ringside Seat column at santafenewmexican.com. This article has been updated to clarify that if the proposal had passed the House and Senate voters would have had the final say on legalizing marijuana.