SANTA FE, NM — New Mexico State Representative Emily Kane introduced House Bill 465 Thursday, a bill that would reduce penalties for adults who possess small amounts of marijuana. A similar bill was introduced last year, but died in committee.
The proposed legislation reduces the penalty structure for possession of up to 4 ounces to a civil penalty with increasing fines while taking away the potential for jail time for any amount up to 8 ounces.
Currently, in New Mexico, possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana is a petty misdemeanor crime with fines and possible jail time; over 1 ounce and up to 8 ounces of marijuana is a misdemeanor crime with large fines or possible jail time of up to 1 year.
“I am troubled by the millions of taxpayer dollars that are spent every year on processing thousands of low level marijuana misdemeanor offenders — dollars that might be better spent by hard-pressed law enforcement agencies on more pressing public safety needs. ,” stated Emily Kaltenbach, the New Mexico State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “If ever there was a bill that advanced the smart on crime agenda, this is it.”
There is a common misconception that New Mexico’s local law enforcement agencies do not arrest people for marijuana possession. The data tells 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 and marijuana arrests comprised one third of all drug arrests reported in the NM.
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 Marijuana Arrest Research Program estimates that New Mexico spends upwards of $5 million each year simply arresting persons for possessing tiny amounts of marijuana and processing their cases – this does not include costs spent on prosecuting and incarcerating people.
“Having to expend scarce police resources pursuing and arresting non-violent adults for possessing small amounts of marijuana threatens our public’s safety,” stated Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) Executive Director Neill Franklin. “When our police officers are on duty they should have access to the resources they need in order to deal with serious violent crime and to keep our communities safe. Limited resources like investigative time, crime lab analysts and jail and prison beds are needed for pedophiles, rapists and murderers.”
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.
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.