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New Mexico moves toward legalizing recreational marijuana

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Marijuana plants grow under artificial light.
Marijuana plants at the Green Pearl Organics dispensary in Desert Hot Spring, Calif., in January 2018.
Robyn Beck | AFP | Getty Images 2018

New Mexico took a step toward legalizing recreational marijuana when its House approved a bill that would allow state-run stores and require customers to carry a receipt with their cannabis or face penalties.

The measure, narrowly approved Thursday following a late-night debate, mixes major provisions of a Republican-backed Senate bill that emphasizes aggressive regulation with a draft by Democrats concerned about the U.S. war on drugs.

The 36-34 vote sends the bill to the Democratic-controlled Senate for consideration.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has expressed guarded support for recreational marijuana legislation that addresses concerns about child access, road safety and safeguarding the state's existing marijuana market for medical patients.

Under the House-approved bill, recreational cannabis stores would open for business in July 2020.

Rep. Javier Martinez, a Democrat, described the bill as a "grand bargain" with a group of Senate Republicans who favored use of state-run stores, in part to prevent the proliferation of pot shops on city streets in a phenomenon dubbed the "green mile."

The proposed system mimics established state-run liquor stores in many areas of the U.S.

Martinez praised the bill as a way to take more marijuana profits from drug cartels and money launderers.

"You can face criminal charges if you don't have a receipt or other proof of purchase on your person to accompany your cannabis for personal use," said Martinez, describing that provision as a difficult concession to Senate Republicans.

All House Republicans and 10 Democrats voted against the bill.

"I don't like this direction," said GOP Rep. Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences. "My choice would be that we give people really active and productive lives and healthy families."

Ten states and the District of Columbia allow recreational marijuana.

New Mexico could become the second state after Vermont to approve it by legislation rather than a ballot initiative. A bill to legalize recreational cannabis in Democrat-dominated Hawaii fizzled last week.

In New Mexico, possession of up to one ounce of marijuana by people 21 and older would be considered legal with a receipt. Home-grown cannabis was ruled out of the proposal because it could be a source for the black market.

Private dispensaries would be allowed where there is no state-run marijuana store within 25 miles. Oversight of the industry would be shared by state agriculture, health and environmental officials.

The bill would repeal criminal laws governing cannabis offenses and expunge and destroy criminal conviction records. It eliminates taxes on medical marijuana to help ensure sufficient supplies to patients.

Taxes of up to 17 percent would be levied on recreational marijuana sales. Some tax revenues would be set aside to collect statistics on marijuana use and road safety, efforts to discourage child consumption and research on the public health effects of legalization.

Prospects are uncertain for approval by the state Senate, where conservative Democrats occupy key leadership and committee posts.

"You can give them all the facts in the world, and they just won't touch it," said Democratic Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, describing the staunch opposition by several Democratic colleagues. "It is strong, emotional."

The prospect of legalization has opened a public rift in the state GOP, with party chairman and former congressman Steve Pearce ridiculing the idea of "state employees selling pot."

GOP Sen. Cliff Pirtle, a dairy farmer in his early 30s from Roswell, in a staunchly Republican district, has cast recreational marijuana as a source of economic opportunity as well as "liberty and freedom for responsible adults."

State-run stores would ensure small commercial marijuana producers get shelf space to compete, he said, adding that main streets in small towns are not transformed by the sight of storefront marijuana shops.