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Will ABQ get to vote on relaxed pot penalties?

SANTA FE, N.M. — Even supporters acknowledge it could be close.

The campaign to relax penalties for marijuana possession turned in more than 16,000 signatures to the Albuquerque city clerk Monday afternoon, giving the proposal a shot at landing on the Nov. 4 ballot.

But it’s no guarantee.

City workers have 10 days to verify that at least 11,203 of the signatures are valid and from registered voters within city limits.

That means the acceptance rate can’t dip much below 70 percent. Verification for the first batch of signatures was running about 57 percent, according to figures released by acting City Clerk Trina Gurule.

Patrick Davis of ProgressNow New Mexico, which helped launch the campaign, said he expects the acceptance rate to climb. Volunteers gained experience and familiarity with the procedures as the campaign moved along, he said.

“It’s going to be tight,” Davis said in an interview, “but we’re cautiously optimistic.”

Monday was the 60-day deadline for turning in signatures.

Rachael Maestas, left, of ProgressNow New Mexico hands signed petitions to Lucinda Montoya, who works in the Albuquerque city clerk's office. Supporters want to relax penalties for marijuana possession. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Rachael Maestas, left, of ProgressNow New Mexico hands signed petitions to Lucinda Montoya, who works in the Albuquerque city clerk’s office. Supporters want to relax penalties for marijuana possession. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

The proposal aims to reduce the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

It would change a city ordinance that now calls for a fine of up to $50 and as many as 15 days in jail for possession of an ounce of marijuana.

The petition initiative filed Monday seeks to make the maximum penalty a $25 fine and no jail time. Possession of marijuana would be “a lowest law enforcement priority.”

The practical impact of passing the measure isn’t clear.

Assistant City Attorney Greg Wheeler said the proposal, if enacted, might be pre-empted by state law. Cities, he said, generally have the freedom to enact laws that are at least as strict as the state’s.

“That would leave this vulnerable to a challenge for pre-emption,” Wheeler said.

But other factors could weigh into a judge’s decision, too, he said.

Supporters of the marijuana petition say they’re confident it would withstand a legal challenge.

Davis, a former police officer himself, said police typically have discretion to cite someone under either a state statute or city ordinance.

“All we’re doing is changing the options for the officer on the street and for the courts to give them a penalty that’s reasonable,” he said.

An ounce is a small amount of marijuana, Davis said. “This is not drug trafficking,” he said.

Public support for marijuana legalization or less stringent penalties is picking up across the country, Davis said, and he’s confident it would win approval if placed on the ballot.

Signature gathering for a similar proposal is underway in Santa Fe. Davis said supporters there still have another week to continue their work.

Under state law, a person who has an ounce or less of marijuana is guilty of a petty misdemeanor and subject to a fine of at least $50. The maximum penalty is a fine of $100 and 15 days in jail. That’s for a first offense.

There are stiffer penalties for repeat offenses, including up to a year in jail.

Gurule, the city clerk, said her staff has already started checking signatures. Signatures can be rejected if they come from someone who’s not registered to vote or who lives outside city limits, she said.

There’s also an appeals process for signatures that are rejected.

It’s common for as many as half the signatures turned in by campaigns to be rejected, she said.

If the city clerk certifies that there are enough valid signatures, then the proposal goes to the City Council, which has the option of approving the ordinance without an election. If the council doesn’t approve it, then the proposal is supposed to go before voters within 90 days, according to the City Charter.

Supporters hope to have it on the Nov. 4 general election ballot.

ProgressNow New Mexico and Drug Policy Action of New Mexico started the Reducing Marijuana Penalties campaign in May.

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