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New Mexico set to legalize marijuana as New York ends its pot prohibition

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) has promised to sign a bill that will legalize recreational marijuana in the state for adults over 21 years old. (Morgan Lee/AP)
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Capping off a momentous week for legal cannabis, state legislators in New Mexico on Wednesday voted to allow recreational use of the drug — a vote that came hours after New York’s governor signed a bill legalizing marijuana.

New Mexico’s Cannabis Regulation Act will eliminate criminal penalties for possession and use of marijuana for adults over 21 years old beginning in 2022 and create a framework for licensing sellers and taxing drug sales at up to 20 percent.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), who called the special session 10 days after the state legislature failed to pass the bill during its regular session, is expected to swiftly sign it.

“This is a significant victory for New Mexico and my signing pen is ready” she said in a tweet late Wednesday.

The move sets up New Mexico to join 15 other states that have fully decriminalized the drug and came on the same day that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) asked state legislators to speed up his state’s legalization to allow adults to start using the drug as early as July.

New York on March 31 legalized adult use of marijuana while Virginia has moved to speed up legalization of the drug. (Video: Reuters)

State-level support for decriminalizing the drug has been growing since California became the first to legalize medical marijuana in 1996. In 2012, Colorado and Washington state pioneered laws to legalize recreational use of the drug.

Spurred in part by the opportunity to generate new revenue through hefty taxes, many states have followed suit. Marijuana was a big winner on Election Day in November, when voters in New Jersey, Arizona, Montana and South Dakota chose to lift restrictions on adult cannabis use.

Many states have also been motivated by calls for social justice measures to undo some of the damage done by harsh criminalization laws that disproportionately sent minorities to prison for nonviolent drug crimes. The New Mexico bill included a measure allowing people with a criminal record for possessing the drug for personal use to expunge past convictions.

Despite widespread changes on the state level, marijuana remains illegal under federal laws. The discrepancy causes obstacles for the cannabis industry, which has been locked out of traditional banking arrangements and interstate commerce. Even in states where cannabis use is legal, some government employees have been told not to use the drug or face termination.

Some members of Congress and even President Biden, who was once a staunch supporter of the “war on drugs,” have expressed openness to changing federal rules that classify cannabis as a Schedule 1 drug, the most tightly regulated class overseen by the Drug Enforcement Administration. But the Biden White House also fired five staffers over past use of drugs, including marijuana.

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would have removed marijuana from the federal schedule of drugs altogether, opening the door for the burgeoning cannabis industry to become a major economic sector in the United States. But the legislation stalled out and failed to gain traction in the then-Republican-controlled Senate.

The growing push to legalize cannabis is one political issue that has not split neatly down party lines. It is popular with voters in deeply Democratic states like California and Washington and in red states like South Dakota. When voters get to weigh in on the ballot, decriminalization often wins, no matter the dominant political party.

The New Mexico state Senate, which is controlled by the Democrats, voted 22 to 15 in favor of the proposal to legalize cannabis shortly after 9 p.m. local time on Wednesday. Some Republicans opposed the bill on the grounds that it could worsen the state’s struggles with poverty and opioid addiction or make it easier for children to access the drug. But other Republicans in the state supported the bill to legalize and regulate the cannabis industry.

Lt. Gov. Howie Morales (D) called it a “historic special session meeting” that would “end the harmful, long-term impacts of cannabis conviction records.”

After the vote, the politicians who helped shepherd the bill through the New Mexico legislature celebrated.

“This reform will help diversify our economy, create tens of thousands of jobs, and generate millions in revenue that will be reinvested into our communities,” state Sen. Katy Duhigg (D) said in a tweet late Wednesday.