Mayor Tim Keller signed a bill Thursday decriminalizing the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana in the city.
The legislation, passed by city councilors last week, replaces the criminal penalty of fines and jail time for such possession with a $25 civil fine.
Authorities warned that marijuana possession remains a criminal offense under state and federal law.
“Removing the criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana will free up precious resources for law enforcement, who have plenty on their plate already,” Keller said in a statement. “We’re facing real challenges in Albuquerque and this is a step in the right direction to allow our officers the flexibility to better prioritize their time tackling violent crime and property crime in our city.”
APD Spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said that 177 police reports were filed for marijuana possession in 2016 and 120 reports in 2017.
Police Chief Michael Geier said, “This new legislation allows officers to focus on violent crime, property crime and drunk driving. It’s important for the public to be aware that this does not change state or federal law and officers will still have a choice to pursue criminal charges when appropriate.”
Still, Albuquerque Police Officers Association President Shaun Willoughby said the legislation won’t impact policing in Albuquerque “one iota,” as far as resources and man-hours.
Willoughby said issuing misdemeanor citations for marijuana possession has been common practice for decades – the only difference here is a “little less” of a penalty for the offender.
“The truth of the matter is, it’s not going to change the job of an officer,” he said. “It’s kind of a moot point … You still have to tag the evidence into evidence, you still have to write a report.”
He said the one positive about the legislation is it doesn’t take away an officer’s “discretion” of utilizing the state code to make an arrest under a “mitigating circumstance.”
City Councilors Pat Davis and Isaac Benton re-introduced the legislation earlier this year after a previous bill was vetoed in 2015 by former Mayor Richard Berry.
“I hope this move encourages other cities to follow our lead, and more importantly I hope it sends a message to legislators in Santa Fe and Washington that repealing criminal cannabis laws is good politics and good policy,” Davis said in a statement.
Decriminalized adult use of cannabis is common-sense public policy, Benton said in a statement.
“Having tried once before to pass it, I appreciate Councilor Davis’ leadership and Mayor Keller’s support this time around,” he said.
Albuquerque joins Santa Fe and a growing list of cities where those who possess small amounts of marijuana are no longer subject to a criminal penalty.
Santa Fe decriminalized marijuana in 2014, but Santa Fe Police Spokesman Greg Gurule said the move has had a negligible effect on policing.
He said it remains up to the officer whether to issue a civil citation, make a criminal arrest under state law or even confiscate the marijuana and send the person on their way without either.
“It’s easier for the officer to do that,” Gurule said, “there’s no paperwork.”
Gallegos said the standard operating procedure to enforce the new law is still in the works by authorities.
The signed legislation will take effect next week, according to city officials..