Legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee To Hear Testimony On Decreasing Penalties for Adults who Possess Small Amounts of Marijuana

Drug Policy Alliance: Reducing Marijuana Penalties will Improve Lives, Save Taxpayer’s Dollars and Significantly Reduce the Burden on Law Enforcement Resources

Santa Fe, NM –(ENEWSPF)–November 28, 2012. Tomorrow, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) will be testifying to the Interim Legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee about the importance of decreasing penalties for adults who possess small amounts of marijuana. DPA is scheduled to present at 10 am in Room 307 at the State Capitol in Santa Fe. 

The proposed legislation reduces the penalty structure for possession of up to 1 ounce to no fine or penalty and 2 ounces to 8 ounces from a misdemeanor to a fine. Currently, in New Mexico, possession of up to 8 ounces of marijuana is a misdemeanor that can include large fines and jail time.  “Although misdemeanors seem relatively insignificant they are anything but minor,” stated Dan Abrahamson, Director of Legal Affairs for Drug Policy Alliance.  “A misdemeanor can ruin a person’s job prospects, affect child custody, access to health care, and have hefty fines that low-income families in New Mexico cannot afford to pay.” 

This proposed legislation is badly needed.  There is a common misconception that New Mexico’s local law enforcement agencies do not arrest people for marijuana possession.  The data tell a wholly different story.  According to the Marijuana Arrest Research Program’s analysis of the Uniform Crime Reporting data, in 2010 there were 3,277 marijuana possession arrests for a rate of 159 per 100,000. Marijuana possession arrest rates vary widely throughout the State, based in part on marijuana use levels as well as local enforcement policies.  Dona Ana, Chaves, Sandoval, San Juan and Bernalillo counties led the State in the number or arrests for marijuana possession, collectively representing 63% of the State’s total number of possession arrests (2,055 arrests).  Dona Ana County alone represented 28% of the State’s total (901 possession arrests). 

“The proposal to reduce adult marijuana possession penalties is a step in the right direction by allowing police to issue a ticket rather than arrest someone for possessing tiny amounts of marijuana,” stated Emily Kaltenbach, the New Mexico State Director of Drug Policy Alliance. “This legislation is pragmatic – we are confident that if signed into law it will improve lives, save taxpayer’s dollars and significantly reduce the burden on law enforcement resources.”  

Around the country, similar change is afoot.  There is growing momentum to reduce penalties for small amounts of marijuana, with California reducing penalties in 2010, Connecticut in 2011 and Rhode Island earlier this year. In the most recent November elections, both Colorado and Washington approved initiatives to legalize and regulate the recreational use and commercial production of marijuana.  

This proposed legislation represents yet another important step in the growing movement to stop treating people who consume drugs as criminals in need of incarceration. Its principal impacts are reducing arrests of drug users, especially those who are young and/or members of minority groups; allowing police to focus their precious and limited resources on more serious crimes; reducing criminal justice system costs; and better enabling individuals, families, communities and local governments to deal with drug misuse as a health rather than criminal issue.  

In recent years American attitudes have shifted dramatically on this issue: For the first time, support for marijuana legalization topped 50% nationwide last year, according to Gallup, and a recent Mason-Dixon poll found that 67% of Republicans believe that the federal government should get out of the way and let states enforce their own medical marijuana laws, rather than prosecute people complying with state law. As marijuana reform becomes a mainstream position, political candidates and elected officials will find it is less and less of a political third rail.  

These arrests impose significant costs on individual, families and communities, as well as on police, prosecutors, courts and taxpayers generally. Furthermore, these arrests provide few if any benefits. As with the impact of most bad drug policies, the people bearing the brunt of the problem are poor, not white, and young.  

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is the nation’s leading organization of people who believe the war on drugs is doing more harm than good. DPA fights for drug policies based on science, compassion, health and human rights.   

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Advocates of easing laws on marijuana use take case to Legislature  

By Julie Ann Grimm | The New Mexican, 11/27/2012

Advocates for reform of marijuana laws are gearing up to make their case to the New Mexico Legislature in its upcoming session, even though it’s likely the proposal would face a chilly reception from the governor.

A New Mexico Drug Policy Alliance proposal to erase criminal penalties for small-scale possession of marijuana is on the Thursday, Nov. 29, agenda for the Legislature’s interim Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee.

The alliance drafted a bill that would allow adults to possess up to an ounce of marijuana with no repercussions and impose civil fines for up to 8 ounces. Although no legislator has yet agreed to sponsor the proposal in the session that begins Jan. 15, alliance director Emily Kaltenbach called it a pragmatic approach that would save taxpayer dollars and significantly reduce the burden on law enforcement.

“Around the country, similar change is afoot. There is growing momentum to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, with California reducing penalties in 2010, Connecticut in 2011 and Rhode Island earlier this year,” she said, noting the trend continued earlier this month, when voters in Colorado and Washington legalized recreational use and commercial production. “As marijuana reform becomes a mainstream position, political candidates and elected officials will find it is less and less of a political third rail.”

The legislative committee, chaired by Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, could vote to endorse the proposal, along with up to 50 other bills it has considered since the last lawmaking session ended, the senator said. However, he said, it is difficult to know today whether such a proposal would gain traction in the Roundhouse.

“I think that the purpose of the interim process is to really have the proposal thrown out there, allow the committee to ask questions and to get a feel for it. It is the evolving process,” he said. “This is an evolving issue. There is no question after Colorado and Washington — and, obviously, New Mexico took a step with medical marijuana, which I supported. So I think it is a discussion that is going to happen and continue to happen in the state.”

Gov. Susana Martinez is expected to maintain her stance regarding stiff penalties for all drug crimes. “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,” spokesman Scott Darnell said in a statement Tuesday. “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.”

Kaltenbach said the state spends about $37 million annually to arrest, prosecute and incarcerate New Mexicans charged with possession and distribution of marijuana. In 2007, the last year for which detailed statistics were available, more than 4,000 people were arrested and charged with such crimes, she said. She said it’s a myth that otherwise law-abiding residents aren’t jailed for pot.

“The data shows another story,” she said. “There are families that are being destroyed by the sentencing regarding marijuana just for possession, for having tiny amounts.”

In Colorado, voters approved an amendment to that state’s constitution. While New Mexico statutes allow for a citizen-initiated repeal of a law through petitions, New Mexico doesn’t have a referendum statute that allows voters to directly authorize a new law or place it on a ballot. Constitutional amendments can land on the state ballot if the Legislature votes to put them there, and that process isn’t subject to the governor’s veto pen.

Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, sees “serious policy questions” about the wisdom of legislating through constitutional amendments. “You are going to see a lot of that as long as Martinez is governor, the effort to basically go around her by passing amendments,” he said. “They have absolutely the force of law, but she doesn’t have a say in them. Then the question becomes, does decriminalization of marijuana belong in the constitution?”

Egolf said it’s preferable for lawmakers to find broad support for statutory changes. On this issue, rather than only addressing criminal penalties, he prefers an approach that would govern marijuana use by adults in a manner similar to the way liquor is regulated and taxed.

“Depending on how they do it, there could be a lot of support for it. … If it makes marijuana a controlled substance like alcohol and tobacco, then I think there would be a lot of support for it,” he said. “Everyone agrees that it’s OK to say you have to be 18 to buy cigarettes and you have to wait until you are 21 to buy liquor. I think you should have to be 21 to smoke marijuana. Basically, treat them the same, regulate them and tax them.”

Complicating the argument is that states still face uncertainty over how federal officials will react to increasingly liberal marijuana laws adopted by states. The Legislature here also could end up considering proposals that would move New Mexico marijuana laws the other direction, such as a 2010 proposal that sought to repeal New Mexico’s landmark medical marijuana program.

Martinez vowed during her campaign for governor that she would work to repeal the state’s 2007 medical cannabis rules. Now one of 17 states and the District of Columbia that allow medical use, at least 8,000 people in New Mexico are authorized patients, including 3,040 who have permission to grow their own marijuana, according to state Health Department figures from October. Santa Fe has the second highest number of such patients, behind Bernalillo County.

Attempts to change marijuana rules aren’t only afoot at the state level. Organizers of a newly formed political action committee called WolfPAC in Santa Fe announced Monday that they will lobby the City Council to adopt policies that would direct police to consider marijuana possession offenses as their lowest priority. Whether any councilors will agree to sponsor such a proposal remains unknown.

Mayor David Coss said this week that he doesn’t have a strong opinion about policies on marijuana because he’s trying to target opiate addicts — with a treatment-over-incarceration approach. Councilor Rebecca Wurzburger, the mayor pro tem, said she hadn’t heard about WolfPAC’s online petition before reading Monday’s New Mexican.

“I’m always interested when people are interested in participating in issues and in developing collaboration around issues,” she said. “I want to talk to them.”

Police Chief Ray Rael said the idea of ordering police to make marijuana possession a low priority wouldn’t change much about the way his officers approach it. Adults who are found with up to 8 ounces of marijuana are typically issued a misdemeanor citation and aren’t necessarily arrested unless officers find probable cause of intent to distribute or other crimes happening at the same time, he said.

“The Santa Fe Police Department does not focus on seeking people with small amounts of marijuana,” he said. “If they are encountered, it is addressed, but our focus is on individuals who are distributing marijuana and other narcotics. Our focus is on burglary. Our focus is on larceny and robbery. … We are not allocating resources solely for the purpose of finding somebody in possession of a joint or two.”

Rael said he’s not an expert on the possible outcomes of city policy changes, but he noted that agencies like his are bound to enforce laws.

“I’m not at this point going to speculate as to what effect it would have until I see what exactly, if anything, is passed,” he said. “Without changing state statute and federal law, I’m not sure how much of a change can be made.”

Source: http://www.drugpolicy.org