New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham convened the first in a series of public hearings detailing the outcomes of her marijuana legalization working group on August 14, 2019.

She intends to hold at least another three meetings before the end of this year with a view to submitting a marijuana legalization bill before the start of the next legislative session in January 2020.

The moves follows another marijuana legalization bill, HB 356, failing to pass the state Senate after clearing the House of Representatives earlier this year. A Republican amendment to the bill sought to ensure a state-run marijuana retail monopoly on a regulated market.

This proved to be a point of contention that led to the bill’s demise, and it resurfaced at the public hearing last week.

Democrats are in favor of private marijuana retail businesses, while Republicans prefer the state to manage the market amid public safety concerns and fears that the supply of cannabis may spin out of control.

In a reversal of traditional partisan positions concerning the role of government and business, New Mexico Republicans want to avoid marijuana stores densely converging in urban areas through state control of the industry.

They argue that New Mexico’s already-established medical marijuana program is proof of this necessity given that half of the 34 licensed dispensaries are located in just two cities, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. This limits access for patients in other areas, in what is the sixth least-densely populated state in the country.

Some marijuana reform advocates are pushing for an industry model that ensures the participation of small businesses as the best way to ensure equitable access.

“New Mexico’s population density is nothing near Colorado’s or California’s, so encouraging home growers or small-time growers will be helpful,” said Cavid Zano of the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Patients Advocate Alliance.

“Right now only Albuquerque has a sufficient supply of cannabis while the rest of the state suffers. The best way to keep it fair is to have the state regulate it, but make it affordable for any New Mexico resident to participate in the industry,” he added.

William Ford, who manages a company with three cannabis licenses in New Mexico, said that a state-run model would exclude small, local producers, but supports the idea of the state issuing county-specific retail licenses.

“This idea would allow local entrepreneurs or existing retailers to develop distribution locations in more remote areas,” he said.

A 2017 analysis of the distribution of marijuana dispensaries published in Marijuana Business Daily supports the argument that they tend to cluster in low-income urban areas. The researchers say this is due to the unaffordability of real estate in wealthier areas coupled with lingering stigmas against marijuana.

The public hearing also discussed ways to protect the existing medical marijuana program in New Mexico. The Department of Health recently published a survey suggesting that 55 percent of the state’s medical marijuana producers are unable to meet the demand. This is also indicated by patient enrollment figures increasing by 39 percent in the past year, while medical marijuana sales have only gone up by 16 percent.

Ideas put forward at the hearing by Rep. Javier Martinez (D) included the elimination of medical cannabis sales tax, the creation of subsidies for low-income patients, and abolishing registration fees for new patients.

Image credit: Bill Clark, CQ-Roll Call, Inc

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