Written by New Mexico State Policy Intern Brett Phelps
I came to law school with a goal of reforming New Mexico’s failed drug policies. At our SSDP Lobby Day on Tuesday January 26th I joined my fellow law students and advocates at the state capitol building in Santa Fe – or the Roundhouse, as we call it – to put what I’ve been learning in class into action. And what a lesson we got!
How New Mexico’s legislature works:
To better appreciate the environment we are working in up at the Roundhouse this session, it helps to understand a little about the current state of New Mexico politics. New Mexico is a longtime democratic stronghold and also a majority minority state with a 58.8% non-white, largely hispanic population. Despite being in a heavily democratic state, Republicans followed the momentum of the tea party nationwide and in the 2014 elections won a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time since the 1950s. Democrats still hold a slim majority in the Senate, and we have a Republican governor who – although she parties and eats pizza like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle – refuses to support efforts for sensible drug policy reform. Like Congress and state legislatures across the country, New Mexico politics have become increasingly partisan and bitter as of late. With every seat in the state House and Senate up for reelection this November, the political rhetoric is cranked to full blast this session, particularly from Republicans beating on their chests about how tough on crime they are. Fortunately we have at least as many stalwart drug law reformers as we have prohibitionists in the legislature, and this atmosphere led to many interesting conversations with lawmakers at our Lobby Day.
New Mexico prides itself on being a “citizen legislature,” meaning our Senators and Representatives do not receive a salary and they only meet for a brief session each year. In even numbered years the legislature convenes for 30 days; in odd numbered years they meet for 60 days. Because there is such a limited amount of time for bills to be heard, there are rules for what kinds of legislation can be introduced during a short 30-day session. For bills to be heard in a short session they must either be “germane” to the state budget, receive a special message from the governor, or have been vetoed by the governor in the previous session.
Sensible drug policies:
For the 2016 New Mexico legislative session, we are supporting two pieces of legislation introduced in the Senate and opposing one bill introduced on the House side. The first piece of legislation we are supporting is Senate Memorial 38 (SM 38), requesting the state’s Workforce Solutions Department “to study the discrimination that medical cannabis patients encounter in New Mexico and to offer policy recommendations to ensure that the civil rights of medical cannabis patients are protected.” This study would be conducted in conjunction with state health, criminal justice, and veteran services agencies as well as advocacy groups and other health-related nonprofits, including Students for Sensible Drug Policy. SM 38 was introduced on Tuesday by Senator Jacob Candelaria (D), another University of New Mexico law student who represents the westside of Albuquerque and is a champion for progressive causes. Sen. Candelaria introduced a similar version of SM 38 last year that died without a vote. Hopefully this year the memorial will pass and SSDP will have the opportunity to join the discussion what kind of policies to implement to protect medical cannabis patients from discrimination.
Memorials are different than bills and constitutional amendments in that they are not legally binding. On the one hand this means that even if SM 38 passes Workforce Solutions is not legally required to conduct the study. At the same time, memorials often serve as a way to introduce ideas that can possibly become full-fledged bills in the future, and additionally the chances of passing a memorial are much higher than passing any legally binding legislation this session due to the current political climate. As of now, this bill has been assigned to be heard by the Senate Rules Committee and the Senate Public Affairs Committee.
The second piece of legislation New Mexico SSDP chapters are supporting this session is Senate Joint Resolution 5 (SJR 5), a state constitutional amendment introduced by Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino to legalize and regulate marijuana for adult use. SJR 5 proposes an amendment to Article 20 of the Constitution of New Mexico to add a new section enabling individuals 21 years of age or older to possess marijuana for personal use. The amendment requires the enactment of law to regulate the production, processing, transportation, sale and taxation of marijuana and requires revenues to be used for the state’s Medicaid program or drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. This provision allocating marijuana tax revenue to the state Medicaid fund is a hook for many legislators because New Mexico’s Medicaid program has expanded at the same time our oil and gas tax revenue has shrunk so now everyone is looking for ways to fund Medicaid. SJR 5 gives people the option to approve or reject marijuana legalization at the next general election. SJR 5 has been assigned to the Senate Rules Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. It is unlikely to see much action this session, but last year a similar constitutional amendment passed out of the Senate Rules Committee so you never know.
The one piece of legislation we are opposing this session is House Bill 195 (HB 195) introduced by Representative Randal Crowder (R). HB 195 would amend the New Mexico’s Worker’s Compensation Act to remove the requirement that medical cannabis be a reimbursable benefit after injury or disablement. Three times since 2014 the New Mexico Court of Appeals has confirmed a physician’s decision that a patient’s enrollment in the Medical Cannabis Program constitutes “reasonable and necessary medical care,” the requirement set for reimbursement by New Mexico’s Workers’ Compensation Act, making New Mexico the only place in the United States so far to require insurance companies to cover the cost of medical cannabis. It is unjust to deny coverage of physician-approved medical treatment to people suffering from debilitating injuries incurred on the job, especially since many patients suffer financial hardship as a result of their injuries.
Additionally, medical cannabis is less dangerous and less addictive than opioid narcotic painkillers, making medical cannabis a viable treatment alternative to opiates for chronic pain. Considering New Mexico has one of the highest rates of opiate abuse and overdose in the country, we as a state should support the use of opiate alternatives for treatment of individuals suffering from severe chronic pain. This bill is being supported by the insurance industry so we will have to monitor its action and do whatever we can to stop it from progressing. Sadly our governor has given a special message to HB 195, meaning she wants to see our state’s medical cannabis program move backward rather than forward.
Lobby day success:
After assembling our six person team in the west lobby of the capitol building outside the rotunda (yes, this type of gathering by people attempting to influence lawmakers is actually where the word “lobbying” comes from), we finalized our strategy for the day and split into two smaller groups to cover more ground. We met with Senators and Representatives in their offices before they convened into their 10:30 morning session, and then while they were in session we called them off the floor meet with us amongst all the lobbyists cloistered in the halls outside the chambers. It was encouraging to hear all the support we have within our legislature for ending the failed war on drugs.
The entire day was both inspiring and educational, and there are too many people for me to thank all at once here for helping to make it such a success. For me personally one highlight of our Lobby Day was discussing drug policy reform with Representative Bill McCamley out on the floor of the House of Representatives while they were not in session. Rep. McCamley is a big time reform supporter and he shared some good advice with our team. He said if we really want to change drug policy in New Mexico then we have to get involved in the upcoming election cycle and get candidates into office who support changing our failed drug laws of the past.
The other highlight of my day was meeting Erin Armstrong in the hallway outside the chambers. Erin advocated tirelessly for medical cannabis in New Mexico for many years until in 2007 the New Mexico legislature passed the Lynn and Erin Compassionate Use Act. That’s right – I got to meet the woman who my state’s medical cannabis law is named after!
In short, lobbying for drug policy at your state legislature takes some work but it’s also a lot of fun and gratifying to see reform in action. I encourage anyone who is in SSDP or simply interested in ending our failed war on drugs to drop by their state capitol and meet with their elected officials. You’ll probably be surprised how much fun you have – and how much you’ll learn about drug policy in your state. So students, consider this your call to go lobby your legislators to support sensible drug policies. And even if you’re not able to take off a day of work or school to go lobby your own lawmakers, keep checking in here to find out what we’re able to get done over the next 25 days at the Roundhouse.
I look forward to updating this blog throughout the session to keep all the SSDP supporters in the know on what is happening with drug policy reform in New Mexico and what they can do to support us in bringing sensible drug laws to the Land of Enchantment.