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Lower Pot Punishment Urged

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It’s been a decade since there’s been any serious talk of marijuana decriminalization in the state Capitol, but the 2013 legislative session could bring a whiff of — um — reform.

The Drug Policy Alliance on Thursday pitched a proposal to lawmakers to decrease penalties for having small amounts of marijuana — eliminating any penalty for less than 1 ounce, and reducing penalties and eliminating jail time for 1 to 8 ounces.

Currently, possession of up to 8 ounces is a misdemeanor that under the law could trigger a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to a year in jail.

The alliance’s New Mexico director, Emily Kaltenbach, said arresting adults for having small amounts of marijuana wastes criminal justice resources that could better be used elsewhere, as well as jeopardizing jobs and creating other hardships for those arrested.

“We see this draft bill as being smart on crime,” Kaltenbach told the interim Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee.

Former Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, now a Libertarian, had some lawmakers in an uproar and fractured the state GOP with his advocacy for drug-law reforms after he was elected in 1998 to a second term. He proposed decriminalization measures as part of broader reforms, most recently on his way out the door in 2002.

New Mexico eventually legalized medical marijuana under Johnson’s successor, Democrat Bill Richardson.

But the current governor, Republican Susana Martinez — a career prosecutor and district attorney from Doña Ana County — “opposes drug legalization or decriminalization efforts,” her spokesman, Scott Darnell, said Thursday.

According to the alliance, there were 3,277 arrests in New Mexico in 2010 in which marijuana possession was the sole or primary charge. Marijuana arrests were 34 percent of all drug arrests, according to the alliance.

Doña Ana County accounted for 28 percent of the overall arrests; Doña Ana and Chaves Counties had the highest arrest rates.

Fifteen states have enacted some form of marijuana decriminalization, lawmakers were told. Colorado and Washington voted recently to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana.

“Against that backdrop, this bill is quite modest,” Daniel Abrahamson , the national organization’s legal affairs director, told the committee.

Republican opponents of the proposal said the alliance’s arguments were weak, the bill was flawed, and decriminalization would only create a bigger market for marijuana and worsen New Mexico’s drug problem.

They objected that, under the proposal, possession of 8 ounces or more — with no upper limit — of marijuana would be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $1,000. Currently, it’s a fourth-degree felony.

The proposed legislation provides that possession of 1 ounce or less would not be subject to a fine or penalty; possession of more than 1 ounce and up to 4 ounces would be subject to a civil penalty of up to $100; and possession of more than 4 ounces and less than 8 ounces would be subject to a civil penalty of up to $500.

Rep. Dennis Kintigh, R-Roswell, a retired FBI agent, said the proposal would “trivialize how we deal with drugs.”

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