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City goofs on pot penalty reduction drive

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Securing a spot on the ballot for a proposal to reduce marijuana penalties just got tougher.

City Attorney David Tourek said Tuesday that the city made a mistake in calculating the number of petition signatures required to trigger an election on the measure.

Supporters need 14,218 signatures, not 11,203, he said.

That’s based on the number of people who voted in the last regular city election. The petition must receive signatures equal to at least 20 percent of the roughly 70,000 people who voted in last year’s mayoral election, Tourek said.

The city clerk’s office made a mistake in calculating the number, and the Legal Department approved it, Tourek said. Assistant City Attorney Greg Wheeler said it was his mistake.

The higher standard will make it more difficult to get the petition on the Nov. 4 ballot. Supporters of the measure turned in more than 16,000 signatures Monday, the deadline for collecting them.

But it’s common for high percentages of signatures to be invalidated because they come from people who aren’t registered to vote or who don’t live within Albuquerque city limits. The city clerk’s staff estimated earlier this week that about 43 percent of the marijuana petition signatures reviewed so far were invalid.

Pat Davis of ProgressNow New Mexico, which worked on the campaign, said it’s “absolutely not” fair to change the signature requirement now. The campaign and its supporters had been told they needed only 11,203 signatures, he said.

“We relied on the directive that they gave us,” he said. “If they made a mistake, we’re going to have to figure out how to remedy that.”

Davis said the circumstances – a new requirement revealed after the deadline to gather signatures – deserve scrutiny.

“It raises a big question as to why they waited until this point to take a second look at the law,” he said.

City Councilor Don Harris, a Republican from the east side, said he saw the 11,203-figure and noticed that it was a little low, given the number of people who voted in the 2013 municipal election. He notified City Council staff, he said, and they may have contacted the clerk or attorney.

The proponents’ “own website quotes the charter correctly,” Harris said. “It was easy math.”

The site doesn’t list a specific number, but it mentions the City Charter provision on petition initiatives.

The City Charter requires supporters of initiatives to gather signatures equal to at least 20 percent of the average voter turnout in the past four municipal elections or 20 percent of the turnout in the most recent regular municipal election, whichever is greater.

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.”

Officers would still have the option to cite people under a more stringent state law, which says 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 for a first offense is a fine of $100 and 15 days in jail.

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