Pot decriminalization proposed for New Mexico's biggest city

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Two Albuquerque city councilors are pushing to decriminalize marijuana possession in cases where a person is caught with an ounce (28 grams) or less of marijuana, saying their proposal will free up police time and resources to focus on more serious crimes.

Councilors Pat Davis and Isaac Benton planned to announce their proposal late Monday afternoon to amend Albuquerque's criminal code by making low-level pot possession and paraphernalia without a valid referral a citable offense that can come with a $25 ticket but no jail time.

The proposed change —which still must go before the City Council and mayor for approval — would add Albuquerque to a growing list of municipalities that have decriminalized possessing pot in small amounts, including Orlando and Pittsburgh. Nine states and Washington, D.C, have already legalized recreational marijuana.

"It's been needed for many years," said Emily Kaltenbach, the state director in New Mexico for the Drug Policy Alliance, which has advocated nationally for easing drug sentencing laws. "New Mexico is sort of behind the curve when it comes to marijuana reform."

She added that a single arrest for marijuana possession can hinder a person's chances at securing housing or student loans. New Mexico is also among a handful of states where marijuana possession on a person's record can block his or her chances of getting approval to adopt a child, she said.

Under the city's criminal code now, police can issue $50 fines to first-time offenders possessing an ounce or less of marijuana. Authorities can also decide to send the first-time offenders to jail for a maximum of 15 days, though such instances appear to be rare.

A review of Metropolitan Detention Center bookings over the past week showed no one was booked into the Metropolitan Detention Center following an Albuquerque police arrest on a sole petty misdemeanor charge of paraphernalia or marijuana possession. Bernalillo County Sheriff's deputies only made one such arrest in Albuquerque resulting in a jail booking in Albuquerque in the same period.

The low rate of arrests has raised some question from skeptics, including Rep. Monica Youngblood, an Albuquerque Republican, over the proposal's impact. As a state lawmaker, she expressed opposition to legalizing marijuana in the past, saying she believes the state has bigger problems to address.

"I don't see that people are being arrested or rearrested or that the justice system is being packed with all of these low-level possession crimes," she said. "I don't see that it's an issue or something we should be concerned about."

Citing Albuquerque police data, Davis, a former law enforcement officer and Democrat, said there were roughly 200 total low-level marijuana or paraphernalia possession arrests or citations last year, with each taking potentially hours of officers' time to process. Thousands of people are booked into the jail each year.

In 2014, a similar proposal went before the City Council, but was vetoed by Mayor Richard Berry, a Republican. Berry was replaced late last year by Tim Keller, a Democrat.

Davis said he believes the proposal's prospects have been boosted by the change in administrations.

The measure also has backing from the city's police union.