As I approach my Thursday night deadline, the 2021 legislative session has less than 48 hours left. The two bills that must be passed this session by law—the budget, and redistricting—still await a final Senate vote. Two other bills of great statewide interest—loosening of liquor license and sales restrictions, and cannabis legalization—have moved forward in the last 24 hours but may meet very different fates.
House Bill 255 introduces a new, cheaper type of liquor license to restaurants. For decades, restaurants wishing to offer a full bar needed hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase a license, and in rural areas would have to wait for another business to close or sell an existing license in order to obtain one. Additionally, alcoholic drinks could be delivered to homes by package stores, restaurants and breweries. House Bill 255 swept through its committees and was signed into law this week.
There were several bills introduced this session to legalize cannabis. Passage of one of these bills at the start of the session seemed assured; in fact, there is funding in the state budget bill to manage the regulation of legal cannabis. Now, 58 days later, only one remains with any hope of passage, House Bill 12. House Bill 12 got out of its last committee in the wee hours of Thursday morning, meaning it can be heard on the Senate floor for final passage. It is not yet scheduled.
House Bill 12 includes a total tax rate of 20% on sales; would allow New Mexicans to grow up to six plants for personal use; and would cap commercial growers for three years to allow smaller growers to build their base.
It also would expunge the records of previous cannabis convictions, something that opponents, who otherwise support legalization, don’t like. Others are concerned the taxes are too high and will drive commercial growers to states like Colorado and Arizona.
House Bill 255 had its detractors in both caucuses too, including concerns about fairness to current holders of liquor licenses, who feel they are seeing their six-figure investments lose most of their value, as well as concerns about making it “too easy” to get alcohol. The bill as signed into law allows current license holders to claim up to $200,000 in tax deductions for the next four years; bans sales of liquor miniatures at convenience stores; and bans liquor sales at convenience stores in McKinley County.
At face value, it would seem that both House Bill 255 and House Bill 12 should have seen similar ease getting through the Legislature this session. Both would bring much needed tax revenue into state coffers, even if via “sin taxes.” Both would increase business opportunities for New Mexicans. Both tread upon tricky licensure issues that require responsibility on the part of business owners and oversight by state regulators. Both deal with intoxicating substances in a state that, well, has some issues with substance abuse. How did booze get a bye while we still dither over weed?
I think the single largest factor is age. Very few New Mexicans recall Prohibition, and my guess is that very few of the few who do were in favor of it. We are used to legal alcohol sales and comfortable with adults drinking. The devastation the pandemic has left on the restaurant industry is epic, and any boost it can be given is not going to be met with objection, especially when it results in more options for obtaining a product that New Mexican consumers are already familiar with.
Cannabis is still an unknown for many, especially those in power, and still has a (albeit declining) counterculture taint. I used to say often when different people would mention to me the slowness of the Navy to adapt to new cultural norms (at the time, women in uniform, and LGTBQ+ in uniform): “Sometimes you have to wait for all the right people to retire or die.” This may be the case for legal cannabis in New Mexico. And as we have seen the wrangling among bills between the mega producers and the small farmers, we may be seeing a new spin on an old theme in New Mexico: with any big new opportunity, the politicos have to agree who gets to make money from it.
As I have said in a previous column, being wrong can be great. I’d love to be wrong about legal cannabis and see New Mexico take a step forward for our economy and join other states to lead the nation in a high-yield agricultural boom.
Merritt Hamilton Allen is a PR executive and a former Navy officer. She lives amicably with her Democratic husband and Republican mother north of I-40 where they run two head of dog, and two of cat. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.