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Inside the Beltway

Washington politics and government with a New Mexico flavor

New Mexico Delegation Talks Pot Policy

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When Mexican President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto met with President Obama in the Oval Office last week, the failing war on drugs got short shrift — at least in public.

It’s unclear what the leaders discussed in private, but in remarks to reporters — including this one — Obama and Nieto emphasized trade, economics and border security, barely mentioning the brutal drug violence that has cost tens of thousands of lives in Mexico and threatens security on this side of the border, as well.

Drug legalization advocates contend that just legalizing marijuana, which provides Mexican drug cartels with much of their revenues, could help stem the violence. But Nieto and Obama have both stated emphatically that they don’t support legalizing pot and Congress — including most members of the New Mexico delegation — doesn’t seem to think much of the idea, either. This is despite the fact that Americans are now evenly divided on the issue. A CBS poll released Friday showed that 47 percent of Americans support legalization and 47 percent oppose it. Fifty-one percent opposed it in a CBS poll a year ago.

In an interview before his White House visit, Nieto suggested ballot measures that legalized marijuana in Colorado and Washington last month could portend broader policy changes.

“It’s clear that this thing that has happened in two states in the near future could bring us to rethinking the strategy,” Nieto told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer somewhat cryptically on Tuesday.

In the absence of federal action, the debate over marijuana legalization is taking place primarily at the state level, including in New Mexico, where a proposal to relax the state’s pot laws faces tough sledding in the Legislature. Last week, I asked New Mexico’s congressional delegation — since they are some of the state’s highest-profile leaders — to share their thoughts on marijuana legalization.

Michelle Lujan Grisham, who was elected to New Mexico’s 1st Congressional District last month, was the only (soon to be) member of the New Mexico congressional delegation who voiced support for congressional action on marijuana policy. Lujan Grisham was a strong supporter of New Mexico’s medical marijuana law.

“I welcome a broader policy debate about our drug laws, especially in light of states’ efforts to decriminalize the recreational use of marijuana,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “Without an honest debate, I am concerned that we’ll end up with a hodge-podge of conflicting state and local laws. We need leadership from Congress.”

Lujan Grisham’s office did not respond to a follow-up query to clarify her personal position on legalization.

Rep. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat who won election to the U.S. Senate last month, said in an interview that the war on drugs “as it has been framed has not been successful.”

He said New Mexico’s biggest problem with controlled substances is with hard stuff such as heroin and methamphetamines, not pot. Therefore, Heinrich said, state and federal resources should be aimed primarily at those harder drugs. And as for marijuana?

“I certainly support the states being able to use medical marijuana with a prescription from a doctor, there is no question about that,” Heinrich said. “I wouldn’t say I’m briefed enough on the issue to make a commitment beyond that.

“I think we need to look very closely at what the real impacts are in Colorado and Washington and what happens in those states as a result and learn from it,” Heinrich said. “That’s going to take some time.”

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said he doesn’t support legalizing marijuana and neither do most in Congress. He does, however, support New Mexico’s medical marijuana law.

“I don’t think there is any federal support for legalization,” Udall told me in an interview. “I don’t see any effort by this Congress or this Senate to legalize. I just don’t see it happening. I’m not pushing for it.”

Udall said the perception that people are getting locked up for smoking a little pot is off-base.

“As a practical matter we don’t put people in jail for using a small amount of marijuana — nobody is going to jail for using a small amount of marijuana in a personal, home-type situation,” Udall said. “Law enforcement is focused on the drug kingpins and cartels that are working out of Mexico, and they’re focused on people way up the chain — the dealers. Those are the people we should be focused on. Those are the people making the profits and doing the damage.”

Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said legalizing marijuana won’t solve anything and that America should work to reduce its demand for drugs in general.

“At home, Americans have a responsibility to address the illegal flow of drugs,” Pearce said. “Both Americans and Mexicans need peace, freedom from fear and violence, and we need jobs. Legalizing marijuana will not provide any of these.”

Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., supports medical marijuana and backed an amendment that would prohibit the Justice Department from prosecuting people who are in compliance with their state’s medical marijuana laws. He said drug policy should remain a priority. He does not support outright legalization “at this time,” his spokesman told me.

“Substance abuse — and in particular prescription drug abuse and heroin use — remains a great concern in New Mexico, and addressing this issue that tears too many families apart must continue to be a high priority for both the United States and Mexico,” Luján said.

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