Gov. Martinez should approve bills on hemp, reduced pot penalties

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Gov. Susana Martinez should sign House Bill 144 into law, a bill that allows the establishment of research programs for industrial hemp in New Mexico. She should also sign Senate Bill 258, which reduces penalties for pot possession, if it makes its way out of the House.

The reason Martinez hasn’t signed the hemp bill in the past is she apparently believes it could complicate life for law enforcement because hemp is a cousin of the marijuana plant. We believe law enforcement officials are smart enough to tell the difference and put some checklists into place.

The bill would allow the state Department of Agriculture to oversee a program for industrial hemp to be grown for study of the cultivation and marketing of hemp, a fibrous plant. Besides using half the water of wheat and a quarter of the water of alfalfa, hemp is used in products from paper to biofuels, cat scratch posts, food and cosmetics. Indeed, it is a relative of marijuana, but has a tiny fraction of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical that produces the “high” when using pot. You wouldn’t smoke hemp.

It’s time to allow farmers and entrepreneurs in Northern New Mexico to join their neighbors in Colorado and other states who are enjoying the economic benefits of industrial hemp farming.

Sixteen states have legalized industrial production for commercial purposes. Colorado produces more than half of the industrial hemp grown in the U.S. And, of course, marijuana is also legal in Colorado, something that has made it one of the most economically vibrant states in the nation.

Meanwhile, the state Senate took a small step forward in marijuana reform this session by reducing penalties for pot possession. Senate Bill 258 was overwhelmingly approved by senators. Supporters say the bill, for one thing, would reduce the enormous burdens that face the criminal justice system in our state. But if the bill is approved by the House, politicos say it will likely be vetoed by Martinez. That would be a mistake.

Nonviolent drug crimes are not holding New Mexico back. Prosecuting individuals who use marijuana for personal use is not an efficient use of resources. Erecting roadblocks within the state’s medical marijuana program, for example, has simply driven those who need it to hard prescription pain killers and illegal drugs. New Mexico is one of the top states for opioid abuse. If the governor wants to help remedy drug abuse issues, she ought to stop worrying about the prosecution of marijuana users and focus attention on rehabilitation and bolster behavioral health resources, which have been cut under her administration.

It may make a good sound bite to appear tough on crime. But as New Mexico wallows in a decadeslong recession and grapples with reduced behavioral health services and a staggering prescription drug, heroin and methamphetamine problem, it makes no sense to disallow farming of industrial hemp and to direct resources toward small-time marijuana users.

Martinez should sign House Bill 144 and, if approved by the House, Senate Bill 258.

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