A New Mexico legislative committee approved a bill to legalize recreational marijuana early Thursday, setting the scene for a vote on the proposal by the full state Senate. The 5 to 4 vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee keeps the bill, House Bill 12 (HB 12), on track for approval during the current legislative session, which ends on Saturday.

HB 12 was approved by the New Mexico House of Representatives in late February. Under the measure, the use of marijuana for use by adults would be legalized and regulations for cannabis commerce would be created, with legal recreational sales slated to begin in March 2022. The legalization of cannabis for adults is supported by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is expected to sign the bill if it reaches her desk.

House Bill 12 would also impose an excise tax of 8% on cannabis retail sales. Local jurisdictions would also be permitted to assess city or county taxes of up to 4%. Estimates project the measure could raise as much as $44 million for the state and up to $24 million for local governments each year by 2024. Total taxes on cannabis would be capped at 20%.

Senate Panel Amends Bill

The Senate Judiciary Committee made key amendments to the bill during a hearing that stretched into the early morning hours on Thursday. Changes made to the bill include a provision that requires independent testing of cannabis products and another that, in an effort to prevent monopolies in the cannabis market, prohibits the “stacking” of state licenses by acquiring them under different business names.

The committee also amended the bill to limit the plant counts for cannabis cultivators for three years, a provision designed to allow small growers an opportunity to create a specialized market. The plant limits would be established by the state’s Regulation and Licensing Department, which would set the caps based on population density and the regulations in other states with legal cannabis. Linda Trujillo, the superintendent of the agency, indicated that the limits could be generous.

“Our biggest fear is not there’s going to be too much (cannabis), but that there would be too little and businesses would crash,” Trujillo said.

Republican Senators Vote Against Bill

The Republican Senators on the committee voted against the bill, saying that social justice issues of the measure including community grants and the expungement of past marijuana convictions should be considered separately from legalization.

“These two issues combined are like water and oil,” said Senate Republican floor leader Greg Baca. “They need to be addressed separately.”

Sen. Joseph Cervantes, the only Democrat to join the committee’s three Republicans in voting against the measure, said that the bill was “not ready” for approval.

“This will be a very interesting experiment for the state,” Cervantes said during the hearing.

New Mexico legalized the medicinal use of cannabis in 2007 and has more than 100,000 patients currently enrolled in its medical marijuana program. In 2019, the state decriminalized small amounts of marijuana, making possession of up to half an ounce of cannabis a civil infraction carrying a fine of not more than $50.