Just three months after voters in two states decided to legalize marijuana, two New Mexico lawmakers on Thursday introduced separate pieces of legislation aimed at reducing criminal sanctions against marijuana.
House Bill 465, sponsored by Rep. Emily Kane, D-Albuquerque, would lower penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, eliminating the possibility of a jail sentence for possession of 8 ounces or less.
Meanwhile, Senate Joint Memorial 31, sponsored by Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, requests that the state Economic Development Department conduct a study and report back to the Legislature on the budgetary implications of taxing and regulating marijuana. The senator told The New Mexican last month that if he did introduce such a memorial, it would be so he would have a study in hand next year, when he might introduce a constitutional amendment to legalize the drug.
Kane, a captain with the Albuquerque Fire Department, said in her experience responding to fires, accidents and incidents of violence, she’s seen plenty of bad situations caused by alcohol and drugs such as methamphetamine and crack cocaine. “But I’ve yet to respond to a call caused by marijuana,” she told The New Mexican in an interview Thursday.
The measure is backed by the three most powerful Democrats in the House. Among its co-sponsors are House Speaker Kenny Martinez of Grants, Majority Leader Rick Miera and Majority Whip Moe Maestas, both of Albuquerque.
However, even if the Legislature passes the measure, it would have to be signed by Gov. Susana Martinez, who is no ally of drug-law reform. In November, when an interim legislative committee was considering a similar bill, a a spokesman for Martinez told The New Mexican, “As a prosecutor and district attorney, the governor has seen firsthand how illegal drug use destroys lives, especially among our youth, and she opposes drug legalization or decriminalization efforts.”
Under Kane’s bill, possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana would be a civil penalty with increasing fines between $50 and $300. Possession of more than 4 ounces but less than 8 ounces would be a misdemeanor, with no potential for jail time.
Currently, in this state, possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana is a petty misdemeanor crime with fines and possible jail time. Possession of more than 1 ounce and up to 8 ounces is a full misdemeanor crime, with bigger fines and possible jail time of up to a year.
Martinez would not have the opportunity to veto Ortiz y Pino’s measure because it is a memorial, not a bill.
The memorial argues that taxing and regulating marijuana like alcohol and tobacco would “reduce crime and allow taxpayer dollars that are currently being used for marijuana prohibition enforcement and prosecution to be redirected to health, education, drug treatment and other state programs.”
The legislation comes at a time in which public seems to be softening its views on cannabis legalization. In November, voters in the states of Colorado and Washington decided to legalize marijuana.
“It is time to study how wasteful New Mexico’s punitive marijuana laws are and how they continue to sustain a massive, increasingly violent underground economy, waste scarce law-enforcement resources and rob New Mexico taxpayers of millions in potential revenue,” said Emily Kaltenbach, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, in a news release.
“Whether by the hand of lawmakers or a fed-up electorate, these laws are going to change,” Kaltenbach said. She said a study like the one Ortiz y Pino is proposing also would “bring to light how the safe regulation of marijuana would undermine criminal enterprises on both sides of the border, while boosting New Mexico’s economy and protecting New Mexicans’ safety.”
The last push for decriminalization of marijuana was in 2001, when Gary Johnson, a major advocate for drug-law reform, was governor. Johnson’s efforts to reduce penalties for the drug fell flat. After that, advocates led by the Drug Policy Alliance concentrated their efforts on legalizing marijuana for medical use. The Legislature eventually passed a law for a state Medical Cannabis Program, which was signed into law by Gov. Bill Richardson in 2007.
Contact Steve Terrell at email@example.com. Read his political blog at roundhouseroundup.com.