A Sea Change for the Incarcerated? NM Upholds Inmates’ Right to MMJ

Cannabis Law Update: Amidst all the other stories that flooded the newswires at the close of 2020, one cannabis-related item slipped by nearly unnoticed. But it’s potentially a very big one. Here’s the short version: A New Mexico judge ruled that an Albuquerque jail must allow inmates who qualify for medical cannabis access to their medicine.

What might this mean for New Mexico and beyond? Let’s start unpacking.

New Mexico Cannabis News: NM Inmates Allowed Access to MMJ

As you’re well aware, cannabis law is a monumentally tangled subject, in large part due to the tension between entrenched federal prohibition and the ever-increasing advancement of state-by-state legalization. But in advancing the codification of cannabis as a valid and protected medicine, the recent ruling could have major implications for states beyond the New Mexico state lines.

The story begins in 2019 when Albuquerque resident Joe Montaño was convicted of drunk driving and sentenced to 90 days’ house arrest. In addition to successfully completing a mental health treatment program, one of the conditions of Montaño’s sentence was that he not use any illegal drugs.

Montaño had qualified for medical cannabis prior to his arrest. But when he was found to have used it during his house arrest, he was jailed for 30 days. According to his attorney, Jacob Candelaria—who also happens to be a state senator—Montaño nearly lost the commercial refrigeration business he had just launched as well. As a result, Candelaria filed a motion in July of 2020 allowing incarcerated persons access to their cannabis medicine.

Finally, in late December of 2020, 2nd Judicial District Judge Lucy Solimon issued a ruling finding that as a state-certified cannabis patient, Joe Montaño had a right to his medicine. And while state lawmakers had previously ruled in 2019 that those under house arrest or probation could have access to medical cannabis, Judge Solimon’s ruling explicitly included anyone incarcerated in the state of New Mexico.

Attorneys for Bernalillo County—of which Albuquerque is the county seat— had argued that because of ongoing federal prohibition, Montaño’s use of cannabis represented “a violation of law contrary to his agreement to comply with all city, county, state, and federal laws and ordinances.”

New Mexico Cannabis News: Repercussions Beyond the State?

As of this writing, the impact of the ruling is clear for Mr. Montaño. Beyond that, the fallout is far from certain. No doubt anticipating foot-dragging at least and lawsuits at most, State Senator Candelaria has made it clear he intends to push correctional facilities to comply with the judge’s ruling. Quoted in the Santa Fe New Mexican, Candelaria said that any attempts by jails to “make things more difficult would be disappointing, and the remedy will be more litigation.”

As for potential impacts outside New Mexico, it’s a safe bet that cannabis advocates will be watching very closely. Although the practice of adopting legal precedent from other jurisdictions is well-enshrined in the United States, precedent doesn’t equal law. But in a field evolving as rapidly as is cannabis law, Judge Solimon’s ruling could have far-reaching effects indeed. Count on us to keep an eye on proceedings in the

Land of Enchantment, as New Mexico is commonly known. With this single ruling, the state may have just made a substantial impact in the future of cannabis law.