Reporter Puts State's Cannabis Push In National Context

Mar 30, 2021

  On March 30, the New Mexico Legislature convenes for a special session to focus on legalizing cannabis. A bill made it past the House in the regular session but stalled in the Senate. Reporter Natalie Fertig with Politico covers cannabis policy around the country and has been closely watching the process in New Mexico. She spoke with KUNM's Megan Kamerick her along with my co-host Andy Lyman from New Mexico Political Report for the podcast “Growing Forward: Cannabis and New Mexico.”

New Mexico would be the 17th state to legalize but most states did this through ballot measures, not legislation.

NATALIE FERTIG: So legislatures have been going back in after regulations were passed and either trying to change things from the ballot measures that maybe didn't work. Colorado, for example, famously allowed medical patients to grow 100 plants at home for the first couple years that the legislature then had to go in and drastically reduce that home grow limit, which was essentially a small farm,

I think the closest to New Mexico would be either Virginia's legislation or Illinois legislation which both regulated cannabis and also addressed social equity, creating social equity funds and doing expungements.

MEGAN KAMERICK: What are the trends you're seeing across the country in terms of production control?

FERTIG: I mean honestly New Mexico you guys are so interesting and an outlier in this whole thing nationally because it's not something I’ve actually ever heard before, putting a cap on the number of plants that can be grown. Usually states discuss caps on licenses. So the cap on plants, that's a New Mexico-only thing and as someone who covers a lot of these states, I’m very excited to see how this plays out.

KAMERICK: In Colorado, initially you could grow up to 100 plants as a medical patient, why did they come back and decide they had to fix that?

FERTIG: I should specify that that is for home cultivation rather than people doing that for sales. Washington state actually did the absolute opposite where they did not even allow recreational or adult use consumers to home grow at all. Colorado kind of met them in the middle on recreational home grow. But home grow has been this kind of weird, existential issue on the periphery of marijuana legislation for the entire history of adult-use cannabis in the United States  It's seen as an equity issue. Communities of color do not have as much access to medical marijuana or recreational marijuana in those states where it's really expensive. It also, I should add, gives police one more reason to maybe go into someone's home.

KAMERICK: How did other states that have legalized try to address some of the social justice and equity issues that the New Mexico legislation had.

FERTIG: Well it's been a bumpy ride. California was one of the first states along with Massachusetts and Illinois to create social equity programs. But even some of these programs that were early, Massachusetts program for example, has hit a lot of hurdles. Because one of the things that a lot of lawmakers did not recognize was that you can give equity applicants a head start, but you also need to give equity applicants the means to then succeed.

I've seen in reporting on California a lot of the people getting licenses are people coming from the real estate industry and they have deep pockets and they have deep-pocketed friends. And then you see someone coming from one of the communities that have been most impacted by the war on drugs and they don't have deep pocketed friends they don't have deep pockets themselves. They don't know how to talk to city council people. They don't know how to file all the complicated paperwork and so even though they have priority status in the system, their doors aren't getting open and a lot of the people with the power, a lot of the white men who, you know, have the institutional knowledge which -- not placing blame or anything, but that's the system and that's the reality -- are progressing further than the equity applicants. It's a very, very complicated problem to solve.

It's not just about solving cannabis criminalization, it's about changing an entire system of racism and economic racism in the United States and you can't just fix one part of that and expect the whole system to work differently from all the other systems.

Also federal illegality continues to impact those systems as well. I talked to Cat Packer, who's in charge of Los Angeles’ cannabis industry and she told me that the money that they received from the federal government to help lower income communities start small businesses is not accessible to the cannabis industry because that's federal funding. And then they were scrambling to try to find the funds to then help these people in an industry where starting a cannabis dispensary can be $1 million or more.

You can hear the full interview and find all the episodes of "Growing Forward: Cannabis and New Mexico" at  NewMexicoPBS.org or wherever you get your podcasts.