Peter DeBenedittis, a dark horse candidate for governor of New Mexico, on Monday released a detailed "statement of principles" calling forthe legalization of marijuana for recreational use. And later Monday, two other Democrats running for governor in next year's election also said they support legalization.
Despite the fact that the neighboring state of Colorado legalized marijuana for recreational use more than three years ago -- and even though polls consistently show strong support for legalization -- New Mexico political leaders have been extremely cautious about the idea of allowing marijuana to be legally bought and sold for non-medical purposes.
Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican and former prosecutor, is an unyielding opponent of legalization who repeatedly has vowed to veto any such bill that reaches her desk. But responses from those seeking to replace her raise the possibility that cannabis could have a brighter future in the next administration.
"Simply legalizing cannabis for recreational use in New Mexico would generate $400 million in sales and 16,000 new jobs in its first year," DeBenedittis, a political newcomer from Santa Fe, said in a news release Monday.
His statement, posted on his website, says people should have the right to grow their own marijuana for personal use but individuals shouldn't be allowed to sell their "personal-use" marijuana to others. Laws against smoking or vaping tobacco in public places also should apply to marijuana, he says.
DeBenedittis, an advocate of preventing alcohol abuse, also believes the governor should pardon any person convicted in New Mexico of marijuana possession in crimes that didn't involve the use of weapons or other criminal offenses. Parole boards reviewing cases involving marijuana offenders who are not pardoned should be instructed to consider early releases, he says.
Democrat Jeff Apodaca, an Albuquerque businessman, also supports legalizing marijuana for recreational use.
"What we've learned so far from Colorado and Oregon and the other states that have legalized it is that there are ways we can educate the public, monitor it and create agricultural, production and distribution jobs," he said in a phone interview Monday.
Apodaca also said marijuana legalization is an opportunity to boost state revenues. "But you have to be careful that you don't tax it too much or you'll create a black market," he said. "Most state's where it's legal tax it between 18 percent to 25 percent."
U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham of Albuquerque -- considered the front-runner in the Democratic primary on the basis of the money she has raised and the endorsements she has picked up, said in a statement, "I am committed to working with the Legislature to move towards legalizing recreational cannabis in a way that improves public safety, boosts state revenues, and allows for New Mexico businesses to grow into this new market."
In order to accomplish that, Lujan Grisham said, "we need to conduct a thorough analysis of recreational cannabis programs in other states, which will help us craft appropriate laws to keep our children safe and to implement effective [driving while intoxicated] enforcement. If we move forward, we must ensure New Mexicans reap the economic benefits of cannabis legalization and we do not jeopardize the current New Mexico medical cannabis industry and existing producers."
Cervantes in 2015 was one of six Democratic senators who voted against a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed voters to decide whether to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes. He said Monday he still opposes legalization. "We don't have the infrastructure to [legalize marijuana] yet," he said. He referred to the myriad laws and regulation dealing with alcoholic beverages. "I want to see that we have those kind of things in place for marijuana before we legalize it."
But Cervantes said possessing small amounts of marijuana shouldn't land people in jail and shouldn't clog up the courts. "For the last two years, I've sponsored a bill to decriminalize marijuana," he said. "New Mexico is clearly moving in that direction."
In this year's Legislature, Cervantes' Senate Bill 258 passed the Senate with a bipartisan 33-9 vote. It made it through the House committee process but died awaiting a hearing on the House floor. Under that bill, someone convicted of possessing up to one-half ounce of marijuanawould be issued a $50 penalty assessment. Possession of between a half-ounce and an ounce would be a petty misdemeanor for the first offense. Only those possessing more than eight ounces could face a felony charge under Cervantes' bill.
Republican Pearce is rigidly opposed to legalization.
"Steve wants to tackle poverty at its core and legalizing recreational drug use only places obstacles in front of the most vulnerable New Mexicans, such as unemployed workers who need to pass a drug screening as a condition of potential employment," a campaign spokesman for Pearce said. "Other states have legalized recreational drug use and it's clear that such a policy comes at a cost to the state and to communities."
As another part of his marijuana policy statement, DeBenedittis also called for expanding the state's decade-old medical marijuana program. The candidate advocates increasing the number of plants patients can have and doing away limits on the THC content of medical marijuana. He also wants to lower the state fees imposed on licensed medical marijuana growers.
The rest of the Democratic field agreed in general that the program should be expanded. And each spoke of their personal involvement with medical marijuana.
Lujan Grisham, a former state health secretary, said, "I am proud to have presided over and supported the successful roll out of New Mexico's medical cannabis program. ..."
Cervantes said that as a member of the state House of Representatives, he was the only member of the House Agriculture Committee to support medical marijuana when the idea was proposed in the early 2000s.
Apodaca, a cancer survivor, said he used medical marijuana while going through chemotherapy as a teenager under an early medical marijuana research program signed into law by his father, former Gov. Jerry Apodaca. "He never dreamed I'd ever need that program when he signed that bill in 1978," Apodaca said.
Pearce's spokesman said the Republican candidate "has been moved by the stories of patients who find relief from the drug. He believes the state program should be tightly controlled to ensure it strictly serves a medical purpose."