SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – Hands down, it’s been one of New Mexico’s most controversial issues. This spring state lawmakers legalized recreational marijuana and on April 12, the governor made it official. “I hereby sign House Bill 2. Recreational adult-use cannabis is now the law of the land,” Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham said at the bill signing ceremony.

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As New Mexico builds a regulatory framework for the newly created industry, expect retail outlets, peddling everything from Purple Punch to Maui Wowie, to start potting-up all over the state. Now, anyone lucky enough to secure a state Cannabis Producer’s License is practically guaranteed to earn a ton of money. So to guard against fraud and abuse, there are safeguards built in the licensing process.

For example, the state cannot license anyone with a felony conviction for offenses like fraud, embezzlement, or trafficking of a controlled substance. However, under new rules adopted by the state, marijuana is no longer considered a controlled substance. It’s a loophole created by lawmakers that allow some convicted drug traffickers to get a state license to legally peddle pot through retail outlets.

“That is the drug cartel’s dream,” State Representative Bill Rehm said. “A drug cartel can now be licensed in New Mexico to sell marijuana,” says Rep. Rehm who is a retired law enforcement officer.

Under the new recreational cannabis law, you could be head of a cartel, arrested and convicted of trafficking truckloads of marijuana, and still be licensed by New Mexico to sell recreational cannabis. “Yeah, that’s the way we wrote it,” says State Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino who was involved in drafting the 2021 legislation. “It’s hard to justify excluding somebody who did something that was illegal before July 1, but now wouldn’t be illegal,” Senator Ortiz y Pino said.

Case in point: Gabriel Bethel. In 1996, Bethel and three others were indicted by a Federal Grand Jury on drug trafficking charges. Bethel later pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute more than 100 kilograms of marijuana and was sentenced to serve 46 months in a federal penitentiary. In court documents, Bethel admitted being accountable for about three-quarters of a ton of marijuana.

Following his release from prison, Bethel showed up in New Mexico. Today, he is listed as president of a licensed medical marijuana facility called the Harvest Foundation which has outlets in Santa Fe and Albuquerque. The Harvest Foundation has applied for a recreational marijuana license. As an officer of the foundation, Gabe Bethel will also need to be licensed. According to the new law, the state cannot deny a license to anyone just because they have a felony marijuana conviction.

“This issue coming up should really shine a light on why we need to take our time when passing legislation such as the Cannabis Regulation Act,” says State Senator Cliff Pirtle who voted against the 177-page legislative initiative.

“It was rushed through. There were plenty of legislators who had not seen it the night before the Special Session and that’s how you end up with paragraphs like this, the unintended consequences of having to rush something through just for the headlines,” Senator Pirtle said.

Under the new law, all marijuana offenses have been removed from New Mexico’s criminal statutes. So what would happen today if a New Mexico State Police Officer were to stop a tractor-trailer rig full of marijuana? “It’s a $50 fine. There is no law in New Mexico for distribution of marijuana. It is gone, it is off the books,” State Rep. Bill Rehm says.

Under New Mexico’s Liquor Control Act, anyone convicted of a felony crime is barred from getting a liquor license. However, under the new Recreational Cannabis Act, the state must deny licenses for fraud, embezzlement, and certain drug convictions. However, there is no stated prohibition against licensing convicted murderers, rapists or armed robbers from setting up shop to sell recreational marijuana.

“The way the (Recreational Cannabis) Act is written and signed into law, law enforcement will have almost zero ability to crack down on cartels and the illicit market because of the way it was written,” Senator Pirtle says.

Retail outlets will begin selling recreational marijuana next April.