High hopes, up­hill climb for le­gal recre­ational mar­i­juana

Santa Fe New Mexican - - FRONT PAGE - Ring­side Seat is an opin­ion col­umn about peo­ple, pol­i­tics and news. Con­tact Mi­lan Si­monich at msi­[email protected]­i­can.com or 505-986-3080.

Vot­ers in neigh­bor­ing Colorado le­gal­ized recre­ational mar­i­juana in 2012. Many politi­cians in New Mex­ico have ma­neu­vered to en­act a sim­i­lar law ever since. All of them have failed. Now ad­vo­cates of le­gal­iz­ing recre­ational mar­i­juana are ac­cel­er­at­ing their lob­by­ing cam­paign as the state leg­isla­tive ses­sion moves into its fi­nal month. They have no chance to win un­less they can pick up votes from Repub­li­cans or con­ser­va­tive Democrats in the 42-mem­ber state Sen­ate.

It looks like an up­hill climb.

“I think we have more im­por­tant is­sues to tackle,” Sen. Cle­mente Sanchez, D-Grants, said in an in­ter­view.

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Ran­cho, said lob­by­ists see him as a swing vote on mar­i­juana.

“I won’t sup­port the bill at this point,” Brandt told me. “I don’t care if some­one smokes pot. My big­gest con­cern with mar­i­juana is chil­dren. I’m con­cerned about the ed­i­bles, the sit­u­a­tions when chil­dren in Colorado con­sumed mar­i­juana that adults had in the house.”

Sanchez has be­come the Sen­ate’s most elo­quent or­a­tor in ar­gu­ing that more money from a mul­timil­lion-dol­lar fed­eral grant pro­gram should go to im­pov­er­ished ru­ral schools. He said that project is his pri­or­ity.

House Bill 356 to le­gal­ize recre­ational mar­i­juana hasn’t crossed his desk or his mind.

As with any bill, he said, he would study the pro­posal for le­gal­iz­ing recre­ational mar­i­juana if it clears the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and moves to the Sen­ate.

But he is among a siz­able bloc of leg­is­la­tors who haven’t em­braced the idea that recre­ational mar­i­juana is an im­por­tant ini­tia­tive.

“I’ve al­ways voted against it,” Sanchez said.

In 2016, he joined five other Democrats and all 18 Repub­li­cans in the Sen­ate to de­feat a pro­posed con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment that would have le­gal­ized recre­ational mar­i­juana. The fi­nal tally was 24-17.

Democrats now con­trol the Sen­ate by a greater mar­gin, 26-16. But all six Demo­cratic sen­a­tors who voted against the mar­i­juana ini­tia­tive are still in of­fice.

Un­less at least one of them re­v­erses course, the mar­i­juana bill would need sup­port from a Repub­li­can to clear the Sen­ate.

Sen. Jerry Or­tiz y Pino, D-Al­bu­querque, spon­sored the mar­i­juana ini­tia­tive in 2016. He is cau­tiously op­ti­mistic that his side will have the votes this time.

“We’ll see when push comes to shove. But I think they might sup­port it,” Or­tiz y Pino said.

Ten states and Washington, D.C., have le­gal­ized recre­ational mar­i­juana. Of them, only Ver­mont made the change by an act of its state leg­is­la­ture. All the rest were pub­lic ref­er­en­dums.

Three years ago, Or­tiz y Pino tried to get a recre­ational mar­i­juana ini­tia­tive on the statewide bal­lot. He had no other choice.

Then-Gov. Su­sana Martinez, a Repub­li­can who made her rep­u­ta­tion as a pros­e­cu­tor, had promised to veto any bill to

le­gal­ize recre­ational mar­i­juana. Or­tiz y Pino’s only hope was to keep Martinez at bay by getting his pro­posal on the bal­lot.

Now, with Demo­crat Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham in the Gover­nor’s Of­fice, Or­tiz y Pino hopes the mar­i­juana mea­sure can be ap­proved by the Leg­is­la­ture.

Un­like Martinez, Lu­jan Gr­isham has kept open the pos­si­bil­ity of sign­ing a bill for recre­ational mar­i­juana.

“She has not made it a plat­form, though,” said Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, D-Al­bu­querque.

Ivey-Soto voted for the mar­i­juana ini­tia­tive three years ago.

“My dis­trict tends to fa­vor the idea of recre­ational mar­i­juana,” he said. “But it would be a close vote in the Sen­ate. I would say it would come down to one or two votes.”

Lob­by­ists and ad­vo­cacy groups know they can get the mar­i­juana bill through the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Democrats have a 46-24 ad­van­tage in that cham­ber.

That leaves the Sen­ate as the bat­tle­ground.

To some de­gree, the di­vi­sion there is gen­er­a­tional. New Mex­ico’s long­est-serv­ing se­na­tor is John Pinto, 94, one of the famed Navajo Code Talk­ers in World War II. Pinto, of Gallup, has been in of­fice since 1977. He was among older Democrats who voted against le­gal­iza­tion of mar­i­juana three years ago.

So lob­by­ists are work­ing to per­suade Brandt and a hand­ful of other Repub­li­cans in hopes of tip­ping the vote.

Con­vert­ing Repub­li­cans, even the pos­si­ble swing votes, might be a tougher sell than they ex­pect.

Brandt started his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer as a school board mem­ber, so he knows kids pretty well.

But at age 50, he ad­mits his ex­pe­ri­ences are lim­ited in an­other re­spect. He has never used mar­i­juana.

Mi­lan Si­monich Ring­side Seat

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