SANTA FE, NM — A bill that would reduce penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults was passed Monday on the floor of the House by a 37-33 vote after a heated debate by lawmakers, but faces a difficult deadline for passing in the Senate before lawmakers adjourn.
House Bill 465, sponsored by Rep. Emily Kane (D-Alburquerque) would reduce penalties for adults who possess up to 4 ounces to a civil penalty with increasing fines between $50 and $300, while eliminating the potential for jail time for any amount up to 8 ounces.
“Spending $5 million a year to arrest people with small amounts of marijuana is a waste of resources,” Kane said during a three-hour debate on the bill. “We could put that money to better use.”
“Reducing penalties for adults to possess small amounts of marijuana just makes sense,” said Kane.
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.
“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, calling marijuana laws”institutional state stupidity.”
Opponents said the proposal would send the wrong message to young people about marijuana.
“The perception of risk is a problem. Because as we lower penalties or decriminalize, or however you want to word it, we now imply that it is a safe drug,” said Rep. William Rehm (R-Albuquerque), a retired police officer.
The bill had limited bi-partisan support, with two Republicans, House Minority Whip Nate Gentry and Rep. Terry McMillan of Las Cruces, joining 35 Democrats to vote in favor of the bill. Three House Democrats voted against the bill.
The bill now advances to the Senate, who have only four days left to act on the bill before lawmakers adjourn, concluding New Mexico’s 60-day legislative session.
Even if the measure passes the Senate before the end of the session, Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor, has said she’s against relaxing laws on marijuana and could potentially veto the bill.
“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,” a spokesperson from the Governor’s Office said in a statement Monday.
The last major push for decriminalization of marijuana in New Mexico was in 2001, when Gary Johnson, an advocate for drug-law reform, was governor.
In a recent poll conducted by Research and Polling, Inc, and commissioned by Drug Policy Alliance found that 57% of New Mexican voters are in favor of reducing possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use from a misdemeanor crime to a civil penalty with smaller fines and no jail time.
“Legislators who voted today in support of HB465 are voting with the will of New Mexicans,” stated Emily Kaltenbach, the New Mexico State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Marijuana reform is becoming a mainstream position and our elected officials are finding it is less and less of a political third rail.”
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.