A bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults and depenalize the possession of up to a half pound of pot narrowly passed the New Mexico House Tuesday. The measure was approved on a vote of 37-33.
[Editor's Note: Decriminalization means the removal of the possibility for criminal charges, making possession a civil offense akin to a traffic citation. Depenalization means the removal of the possibility of jail or prison time while possession remains a criminal offense.]
Introduced by Rep. Emily Kane (D-Albuquerque), House Bill 465 would decriminalize the possession of up to four ounces. Possession of between four and eight ounces would be a petty misdemeanor, but the maximum sentence would be a fine. Under current law, possession of up to an ounce is petty misdemeanor punishable by fines and jail time, while possession of between one and eight ounces is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.
"Why on God's green Earth would we want to spend money throwing college kids in jail for having a few joints when we could be spending that money on early childhood education?" asked Rep. Brian Egolf (D-Santa Fe) during the debate. Criminalizing marijuana users is "institutional state stupidity," he added.
"Spending $5 million a year to arrest people with small amounts of marijuana is a waste of resources," said Rep. Kanel. "We could put that money to better use."
"Why are we not legalizing it?" asked Rep. Bill McCamley (D-Las Cruces), unwilling to stop with half-measures. McCamley laughed at the notion pot smokers were a threat to public safety. Instead, he said, they typically "watch PBS, laugh, eat some Cheetos and go to bed."
Speaking in opposition to the bill was former police officer Rep. Bill Rehm (R-Albuquerque), who said he had seen "the bad side" of marijuana. He said he had once stopped a car full of teen pot smokers who then attacked him with a screwdriver.
The bill now heads to the Senate, which has only a handful of days to act on it. Even if the bill were to pass the Senate, it still faces an uphill fight. Gov. Susana Martinez has said she would veto the bill if it reached her desk, and the margin of passage in the House isn't enough to override that veto.
"As a prosecutor and district attorney, the governor has seen first-hand how illegal drug use destroys lives, especially among our youth, and she opposes drug legalization or decriminalization efforts," her office said in an earlier statement re-released on Monday. "Proponents of these efforts often ignore the fact that the vast majority of people convicted for possessing small amounts of marijuana are diverted to treatment programs and those who are sentenced to prison are individuals with long criminal records with convictions for things like assault, burglary, and other crimes."
If decriminalization is going to happen in New Mexico this year, it's going to require quick action in the Senate and the rapid building of veto-proof majorities in both houses.
– Article orginally from Stop the Drug War, used with permission.