What will a marijuana store look like?

Marijuana for sale in state run stores? In New Mexico? Are you kidding?

To at least a few legislators, the idea is completely serious.

Sen. Mark Moores, R – Albuquerque, is one. In 2019 he was a sponsor of Senate Bill 577, which proposes exactly that.  The 133-page bill did not pass this year. A governor appointed task force recently rejected the concept and instead favored private regulated stores. However, this approach is likely to be offered again next year.

The bill does not attempt to bring medical cannabis under this program.

Moores calls himself a libertarian leaning, free-market Republican. He describes cosponsors, Senators Craig Brandt and Cliff Pirtle, as having similar leanings.  Why propose to expand state government into the retail business with the exclusive right to sell recreational marijuana?

Precisely because he’s a free-market businessman, Moores said, and knows how business people think. In a free market, private owners have an incentive to increase sales by every legal means. As a matter of public policy, it is not desirable to “market” marijuana. One way to bypass the marketing impulse is to have it sold by salaried state employees with no commission or incentive to expand sales.

Moores points to Joe Camel, the cute cartoon figure that was used to market Camel cigarettes. Critics said Joe Camel was deliberately created to make cigarettes appealing to children.

The E-cigarette controversy speaks for itself.  Though they’ve only been around for a few years, E-cigarettes are being linked to mysterious lung illnesses and a few deaths – so far no deaths reported in New Mexico.

The best-known E-cig brand, JUUL, claims it limits its product to adults only but has flavors like grape and strawberry milk. The flavored products have been banned in Michigan and are expected to be banned nationally.

Moores says state run cannabis stores would have no incentive to promote sales, but rather could be accurate in labeling products for potency. Readers may remember the 2018 column by my colleague Sherry Robinson, recounting a visit to Colorado, where she tried an “edible” marijuana product and woke up in an ambulance because she had had no idea how strong it was.

A private-sector marketplace of marijuana would have to be regulated to prevent a whole host of possible bad things (the imagination runs wild), just as the current private marketplace in medical marijuana is regulated.

Moores was concerned – so was I – about the recent court ruling that says New Mexico must make medical marijuana available to out-of-state customers.  That decision creates a host of potential problems including the issue of transport across state lines.

There’s a question of what the recreational marketplace would look like, whether it would rapidly be dominated by a few corporations that would then have leverage to throw their weight around, what the regulatory challenges might be and how to avoid a tangled mess like New Mexico’s infamous liquor license system, which I wrote about a few weeks ago.

The argument can be made that it might be better for the state to run the stores, keep the regulatory structure in-house and pocket the profits for the benefit of taxpayers.

The counterargument is – let’s face it — New Mexico does not have a great track record in the implementation of lofty goals. Sprinkled through my columns are repeated calls to “please let’s do this one (insert subject) right because it’s is really important.” Education, corrections, roadbuilding, in so many areas we have aimed high and fallen short. So if we do this, we’d better do it thoughtfully and thoroughly.

However we decide to allow cannabis distribution, legalizing it is a risky proposition. The state store concept has its risks, but makes it less likely that New Mexico will sell marijuana-laced gummy bears and pretend they are not going to children.

Triple Spaced Again, © New Mexico News Services 2019

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