SANTA FE, N.M. -- It's legal for people in New Mexico to possess recreational marijuana and grow those plants at home as of Tuesday, the same day regulators opened discussions on rules for the launch of pot sales next year.
The milestone was celebrated by cannabis consumers and advocates for criminal justice reform who say poor and minority communities have been prosecuted disproportionately for using marijuana. Now, the scent of marijuana no longer is an adequate cause for searching vehicles and property in New Mexico.
Recreational marijuana is now legal in 16 states and Washington, D.C., with Connecticut and Virginia set to join the list Thursday.
New Mexico joins a wave of states that have broadly legalized pot through the legislative process rather than by voter-approved ballot initiative. That has allowed for innovations such as marijuana “microbusiness" licenses that will allow up to 200 pot plants at seed-to-sales cannabis operations.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham heralded the day as "a huge step forward both for social justice and economic development in our state.”
After legalization efforts repeatedly faltered in the Democratic-led Legislature, Lujan Grisham called a special legislative session in March to tackle cannabis reforms and signed the law in April.
“We are proactively stopping the disproportionate criminalization of people of color for cannabis possession, and we are building a new industry," Lujan Grisham said in a news release.
The new law allows people 21 and over to possess up to 2 ounces (56 grams) of marijuana. By April 2022, individuals will be allowed to grow up to six plants at home, or a total of 12 per household.
Regulators held an all-day public hearing to vet proposed rules for cannabis businesses to determine future licensing fees, quality controls, audit requirements and the extent of criminal background checks for producers.
The rules they are considering would allow more marijuana crops per business — nearly three times the 1,750-plant limit for medical cannabis growers. Enrollment in the medical marijuana program has surged past 100,000 people in a state of 2.1 million residents.
Medical users at the Minerva cannabis dispensary in Santa Fe welcomed the changes that took effect Tuesday — including the elimination of taxes on personal supplies of medical cannabis.
Aurore Bleck of Santa Fe, a 70-year-old retired administrator, uses marijuana to treat nerve pain associated with her multiple sclerosis. She says the changes are likely to ease the financial strain of buying cannabis.
“I’m on a budget,” Bleck said. “It’s gonna help me because I can have six plants instead of four. In the past, I’ve grown a lot.”
Recreational marijuana sales planned to start by April 1, 2022, will include a 12% excise tax in addition to sales taxes ranging from about 5% to 9%.
The governor and lawmakers are eager to foster a new source of revenue that can help wean a heavy dependence on the state's oil industry.
Medical stores can’t sell recreational cannabis yet but are looking to expand showrooms for non-medical users.
John Mondragon, 56, of Santa Fe, ordered a cannabis-infused lemonade that helps relieve his post-traumatic stress.
“I’m happy that they passed it," he said of the law legalizing recreational marijuana. "There’s so many people out here with unrecognized anxiety. As they use it, it will help.”
At Tuesday's regulatory hearing, officials with the state's newly founded Cannabis Control Division listened to stark warnings about overuse of agricultural water supplies and the dangers of overregulation.
“A lot of these regulations will only perpetuate the illicit market," said Kristina Caffrey, chief legal officer for Ultra Health, a leading producer and distributor of medical cannabis. “Do they allow legal entrance to effectively compete?”
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.