New Mexico 2016 Legislative Wrap-Up

New Mexico 2016 Legislative Wrap-Up

SSDPers lobbying at the New Mexico State capitol, January 2016

SSDPers lobbying at the New Mexico State capitol, January 2016

In New Mexico, the legislative session only lasts thirty days in even numbered years and sixty days in odd-numbered years. My overall takeaway after being at the Roundhouse for fourteen of those thirty days is that it’s an impossibly short amount of time to thoughtfully debate and vote on legislation.

This system cripples meaningful debate and leaves the legislature impotent against the whims of the chief executive. The 30-60 day setup essentially limits the right to hold office to people who are rich, retired, own their own business, or have a chill boss who is cool with them taking one or two months off every year. Most New Mexico legislators are deaf to our state’s cries for help—desperately wailing in the form of the nation’s highest rates of unemployment, poverty and addiction—because their climb to the legislature has been one of wealth and privilege and success and far removed from the traumas that ravage so many of us. Moving to a full-time, paid legislature would enable more people to run for office, surely resulting in a more diverse legislative body. The entire thing feels like a rushed, especially when juxtaposed against the resources at the disposal of the governor, who the legislature is supposed to be checking and balancing. It’s time for New Mexico to give up its romantic notion of the citizen legislature and move to a professional Senate and House of Representatives that work year-round and whose members are paid at the state median income level. But 30-60 is what we’re stuck with because convincing New Mexicans to give our lawmakers a salary and state benefits seems to be impossible so long as people feel about the legislature like they do now, which is basically that they’re all crooks or crooked. So you work with what you’ve got, and I’m a proud to say that advocates and legislators worked exceptionally hard during this brief session to address the issue of our state’s failed drug policies.

The most important accomplishment within the realm of drug policy reform this session was the unanimous passage of an opioid overdose prevention bill. House Bill 277 was sponsored by Rep. Terry McMillan, a Republican surgeon from Las Cruces, and was signed into law by Governor Susana Martinez on March 4. While it would seem insignificant for a governor to sign a bill that passed unanimously, it’s extra special seeing Martinez enact such a harm reduction measure in light of her previous career as a zealous drug warrior prosecuting users and proudly locking addicts in cages.

According to Drug Policy Alliance, “The new law allows for the possession, distribution and storage of an opiate overdose antidote (Naloxone or Narcan ®) by individuals and community organizations under a standing order and relieves individuals or registered overdose prevention and education programs from civil liability.” The goal is to make access to Naloxone as easy as possible for anyone who might benefit from having it. While DPA’s New Mexico team was instrumental in getting the bill passed, there was also significant lobbying by the state Department of Health and community healthcare providers like Southwest Care Center, who operates an HIV clinic in Albuquerque.

I testified in support of HB277 before the House Health Committee and the support in the room was staggering. After the bill passed unanimously on the floor of the House, a Representative commented that this was the most important public health issue of the session. Hopefully, this positive momentum continues with the law’s implementation, which can begin immediately since the bill included an emergency clause. New Mexico has had the highest rate of overdose death in the country for most of the last twenty years, so this life-saving law was desperately needed. Up next: safe injection facilities.

Another issue that gained ground this session was cannabis law reform. Senate Joint Resolution 5, a constitutional amendment legalizing the possession, sale, and production of marijuana for adult use, passed two committees before dying 17-24 on the Senate floor. This is the furthest any adult use legalization measure has ever made it in the state, and getting this issue debated and voted on by the entire senate was a not insignificant victory in the incremental march towards reform. It doesn’t matter that the vote lost because even if it had passed the Senate it would have died immediately in the Republican-controlled House. So I say losing 17-24 on a first-ever vote is a great start.

I must give special thanks to Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino for introducing this legislation year after year and also for letting me shadow him for a day at the Roundhouse. Senator Ortiz y Pino is a relentless advocate for New Mexico’s most vulnerable communities and we are lucky to have him on our side in the fight for sensible drug policy. The attitude around the Roundhouse seems to be that adult use cannabis legalization is no longer a question of “if” but “when. I expect to see the Senator introduce this legislation next session and find even more support.

Our SSDP chapter also lobbied hard for legislation protecting the civil rights of medical cannabis patients. Senate Memorial 38 was non-binding legislation requesting the state’s Department of Workforce Solutions to study the effects of discrimination against medical cannabis users in employment, housing, medical care, veteran’s services, and education, as well as make policy recommendations for protecting patients’ rights. SM38 passed through both of its committees on a consent pass motion, which was great for everyone because it meant the legislation passed unanimously without the need for debate but a slight bummer for me because skipping public comment meant I didn’t get to give the impassioned speech I’d prepared for the occasion.

Unfortunately, time ran out for SM38 and it died on the Senate floor without a vote. I owe a huge thank you to Sen. Jacob Candelaria and his staff for working with SSDP to move this legislation as far along as it did. We will continue the discussion on medical cannabis user discrimination and reintroduce this legislation next year when hopefully sixty days will be enough time to get it passed.

These were the major developments in drug policy reform for the 2016 New Mexico legislative session. It was an honor and a pleasure to represent SSDP at the Roundhouse and be part of my state’s discussion on drug policy reform. Of course, I would have liked to see more radical reforms passed, but overall I’m very pleased with the progress we made this year.

Lastly, here are a few things I learned about effective lobbying this session:

  • Know your friends. State legislatures are hectic, fast-paced, confusing places so figure out who can help you and don’t be afraid to ask. This includes sympathetic lawmakers and advocates as well as the secretaries and building staff, who don’t get much recognition but keep the whole show running. The assistance of a friendly Sergeant-at-Arms is invaluable when you need to pull a Senator off the floor for a key vote. All you have to do to make friends is maintain a friendlt smile and be geniuniely nice. There are so many oversized egos in a state capitol that a little bit of kindness and humility will get you a long way. Plus when things get overwhelming it’s comforting to see a friendly face.
  • Know your enemies. No matter how persuasive your arguments are, there will always be some people who are dead set against your position and refuse to change their minds. Always be respectful but don’t waste your time on these people. It’s not worth the energy or frustration. Focus on convincing those legislators who are on the fence rather than butting heads with your biggest haters. Make a note of their position and then support someone more friendly to your cause against them in a primary.
  • Know the friends of your enemies. This is maybe the most important lesson for effective lobbying. Finding a common bond is critical for persuading those legislators who don’t already trust you or agree with your position. If you’re working in a small state this might be a literal friend, someone through whom you can earn a legislator’s trust by association. It’s more likely the friends of your enemy will not be actual people but rather common values or issues that a legislator prioritizes. For example, one day this session I went lobbying with a middle-aged mother who uses medical cannabis to treat the effects of throat cancer. She brought her family, including her nineteen-year-old son who uses medical cannabis to treat his severe epilepsy. In a meeting that day with a staunch Republican Senator from the southern part of the state, I could see the Senator’s eyes glaze over and feel her trying to blow me off just a few seconds into my spiel about protecting medical cannabis users from discrimination. The mother who was there with me quickly stepped in and explained to the Senator that cannabis saved her life and the life of her son life. Hearing the argument coming from a mother turned this Senator completely around, and she eventually asked if we could set up a meeting to educate her more about medical cannabis. Bringing in this family angle created a bond between us and the Senator that I could never have done by myself. Being able to strike up a friendly conversation with legislators whose viewpoints are completely opposite of your own is a key component of effective lobbying. The best way to do that is by finding common ground.

So get out there and lobby your elected officials, SSDPers. The time to end drug prohibition is now. This world is yours for the changing.

Brett Phelps
SSDP New Mexico State Policy Intern
University of New Mexico School of Law SSDP Chapter Leader