ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jeff Apodaca on Thursday called for the expansion of New Mexico's medical marijuana program and for legalization of recreational use, saying the poverty-stricken state is missing out on millions of dollars in tax revenues and jobs that could be spurred by the industry.
Apodaca released his plan solidifying his position as a supporter of legalization as the race for governor heats up.
Apodaca pointed to New Mexico's history as the first state to allow for research and experimentation with marijuana as a therapeutic drug. It was his father, then-Gov. Jerry Apodaca, who signed that legislation in 1978.
The research program stalled and it wasn't until 2008 that New Mexico rolled out its medical cannabis program.
"Why are we shooting for being the last to legalize cannabis for adult use?" Apodaca said in a statement.
The push for legalization comes as New Mexico's medical marijuana program has grown exponentially in just the last two years. Producers licensed under the program reported record sales of more than $86 million in 2017 and the number of patients enrolled now tops 50,000.
"We know the medical benefits of it. And we also know the opportunities of legalization for adult use," Apodaca said, suggesting expansion of the long-standing medical marijuana program along with legalization could result in an estimated $200 million of additional tax revenues for the state.
The state's largest producer, Ultra Health, announced that it has acquired farmland in southern New Mexico and has plans for what the industry says could be the largest cultivation facility in North America.
The property spans nearly one-third of a square mile (81 hectares) in Otero County. It will include 20 acres (8 hectares) of indoor cultivation, 80 acres (32 hectares) of outdoor cannabis fields and another 100 acres (40 hectares) of outdoor hemp fields.
Ultra Health president and CEO Duke Rodriguez said the company is preparing for a future in which New Mexico stands to benefit from expanded medical use and possibly recreational use.
Apodaca's plan calls for lifting the current limits on the number of plants producers can grow and reducing costly licensing fees.
Other Democratic candidates have been more cautious.
U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she would work with state lawmakers to move toward legalizing marijuana to ensure there are adequate health, safety and enforcement measures in place.
She called for a "thorough analysis" of recreational pot programs in other states as part of that effort.
Lujan Grisham was in charge of the state Health Department when the medical marijuana program began. Aside from the legalization debate, she said supporting producers to create the latest medicines and methods to help patients would help create jobs and expand the industry.
State Sen. Joseph Cervantes, another Democratic candidate, has sponsored unsuccessful legislation to decriminalize possession of small quantities of pot but has said the state doesn't have the infrastructure and isn't ready yet to legalize.
Cervantes recently lauded efforts at the local level by the state's largest city — Albuquerque — to decriminalize possession of small amounts. He said he would do the same as governor and that it would mark a first step.
Republican congressman and gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce expressed reservations about legalization at a forum earlier this month. He said it might create a stumbling block for people trying to climb out of poverty and addiction to other drugs.
"I just don't see how it fits that we're going to deal with addiction and yet we're going to tell people, 'This one is OK.' I've watched it for a lifetime. I just am very nervous with recreational marijuana," he said.
Associated Press writer Morgan Lee contributed to this report.