EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Javier Martinez remembers the puzzled faces of a group of constituents as he pitched the legalization of marijuana over pizza dinner in Southeast New Mexico.

“The looks were like, ‘why the hell are you doing this?’” the Democratic state representative from Albuquerque recalled. It was a tough crowd including immigrants from Mexico, where the drug cartels kill thousands and profit billions from illicit marijuana exports.

His argument? If you make it legal on the U.S. side, if you regulate our growers and set clear rules for our retailers, the cartels will get stuck with their illegal crop on the Mexican side.

“We had about a two-and-a-half-hour discussion. […]  Yes, there’s an economic development piece to this. Yes, there’s a tax piece to this. But to me, it’s about putting these drug cartels out of business,” he said. By the time he left, everyone on the table was onboard.

It wasn’t the first time the University of New Mexico School of Law graduate relied on his knowledge of the U.S.-Mexico border to get things done. He has spearheaded efforts to improve health care and education in low-income communities much like the ones he grew up in.

But spending most of the first eight years of his life in Juarez, Mexico gives the El Paso, Texas-born Martinez a unique perspective on the drug issue, which he used to lead the legislative effort that led to passage of New Mexico’s recreational marijuana use bills. Gov.  Michelle Lujan Grisham signed those bills last month.

“I’m a firm believer that we cannot win the war on drugs — certainly not with the strategies that we have used for the past 60 years. You cannot fight violence with violence,” he said. In the case of cannabis […] with New Mexico becoming another state to legalize, it puts pressure on the federal government to legalize at the federal level. I believe once that happens, it’s going to deal a tremendous blow to the international drug trade.”

Martinez says he doesn’t buy the argument that marijuana is a gateway drug that leads users to experiment, then get hooked on harder drugs like heroin or meth. And he doesn’t look at users as criminals.

“The next step is to begin looking at drug use as a public health problem, not as a criminal problem. When we allow people to receive treatment and to recover, that’s when we really can put an end to the international drug trade,” he said.

Applications for production licenses coming out this summer

Efforts to legalize marijuana in New Mexico have been around for a long time. But with a growing list of states jumping on the cannabis economic bandwagon, New Mexico lawmakers got down to business in 2021.

“We went into the 2021 session with what we thought was the best version of the bill. It ran out of time on the (state) Senate floor. If we would have had 36 more hours, we would have gotten it done. When the governor called a special session, it literally took 36 hours to get it done,” Martinez said.

Most of the 17 states that have legalized cannabis use have done it through special ballot measures. In New Mexico, proponents set out to make sure they had constituents on board and then brought up the bill for a straight vote.

“We got feedback from people all over state in past five years. I met with people here and there. Allies of mine did the same thing in other parts of state. It was truly a labor of love,” he said.

New Mexico state Rep. Javier Mertinez, D-Albuquerque

But the time for back pats is over; New Mexico officials have less than a year to license growers and see the first dispensaries open for business.

The state on Monday closed the nominating process for its Cannabis Advisory Commission, which will be led by a state-appointed superintendent. Applications for production licenses will be available in July and due by September. Licenses for manufacturing, retail, research and testing, couriers and others should be available by January 2022.

“No later than April 2022 we will begin to see retail sales, you will begin to see dispensaries in your community,” Martinez said, but cautioned those will have to abide by local zoning ordinances. “You can’t just have a dispensary in the middle of your neighborhood.”

The Albuquerque lawmaker said Southern New Mexico communities near the Texas border – places like Sunland Park and Las Cruces – are in a unique position to cash in on “foot traffic” from El Paso County.

“Communities down there will probably get an increase in tourism,” he said. “My hope is that all of those restauranteurs and people operating bars and entertainment venues and what not get ready because this is going to bring more traffic into your community the way it has in Colorado.”

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