Monday, January 21, 2013

ROUNDHOUSE ROUNDUP: Reeferendum for NM?

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican 
January 20, 2013

After the voters of two states, including our neighbor, Colorado, decided to legalize marijuana last November, it was probably inevitable that lawmakers in New Mexico would want to take a serious look at following suit in the current session of the Legislature.

Sure enough, Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, is looking at several options on the marijuana front. Though he hasn’t decided which route he’s going to take, Ortiz y Pino, who was just named chairman of the Senate Public Affairs Committee, told me Friday that he’s looking at three possible options, including an amendment to the state constitution, modeled after the law in Colorado, which would legalize weed for use by adults, regulate it and tax it.

If a proposed constitutional amendment passes both chambers of the Legislature, it would be put on the next general election ballot — 2014 — to let the voters decide.

Call it a “reeferendum.” And as long as we’re getting silly here, I have to point out that in the Legislature, constitutional amendments are introduced as joint resolutions. (Get it? Get it? OK, enough of that.)

Ortiz y Pino is realistic about the chances of such an amendment. “I don’t think we could pass it right now,” he said. “But it’s probably not a bad idea to be laying the groundwork.”

After all, it took Colorado advocates at least a couple of tries to persuade voters in that state to take the plunge.

Under the amendment Ortiz y Pino is considering, the state would license marijuana cultivation, product manufacturing and testing facilities, as well as retail stores.

The state would tax wholesale sales of marijuana. The first 20 percent of the tax proceeds would go to public education. Ten percent would go to lowering college tuition for state colleges and universities. The counties in which the marijuana was sold would get 10 percent of the tax collected. Other agencies and programs — Medicaid, mental-health programs, drug rehabilitation programs, prison and jails, would get a cut of the revenue as well.

Individual counties that did not want to legalize marijuana could opt out.

The constitutional route is just one of the options that Ortiz y Pino has been discussing with the Drug Policy Alliance, the organization that for years fought for the medical-marijuana law that finally became law a few years ago.

Another alternative is a decriminalization law that would reduce penalties for marijuana possession. That one could have a rocky future in the Roundhouse.

Just last month, an interim committee considered — but declined to endorse — such a proposal advocated by the Drug Policy Alliance. This bill would have allowed adults to possess up to an ounce of marijuana with no penalty and called for civil fines — but no criminal charges — for possessing up to 8 ounces. Possessing more than 8 ounces would be a misdemeanor under that proposal. Currently, possession of up to 8 ounces of marijuana is a misdemeanor under state law.

The third option that Ortiz y Pino is considering is a memorial calling for the state to conduct a study of the costs and benefits of legalizing marijuana. “If we did that this year, we still could get the constitutional amendment on the ballot by 2014,” he said.

But one of Ortiz y Pino’s aides is pushing hard to go straight to the constitutional amendment. “I want to go for the Big Garbanzo,” said Harry Pavlides, a veteran New Mexico pollster and political consultant who is working in Ortiz y Pino’s office during the session.

“I don’t like the piecemeal decriminalization approach,” he said. With civil fines, etc., it implies there’s something bad about marijuana, he said. Plus, there would be no tax revenues without legalization.

Besides what he sees as the benefits of legalizing marijuana, there could be a political bump for Democrats as well. “This will increase voter turnout in an off-year if it’s on the ballot,” Pavlides said.

Ortiz y Pino said he probably will decide which path he’s going to take sometime this week.

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