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NM delegation talks pot policy

Did you see the “Meet the Press” segment on marijuana legalization last Sunday?

If not, you didn’t miss much – except the irritating spectacle of smug Beltway insiders making lame jokes about one of the most interesting public policy experiments of our time.

Host David Gregory, reportedly on thin ice because of his cellar-dwelling ratings, kicked off what could have been a lively debate by mentioning last Sunday’s landmark New York Times editorial calling for federal pot legalization.

Times columnist David Brooks, who recently wrote a tortured piece explaining how he and his friends used to enjoy smoking weed but now he thinks it’s bad, set the condescending tone.

“I don’t know what they’ve been smoking up there in the (Times) office. The haze is…,” at which point the panel erupted in chuckles.

“When I think of grass, I think of something to walk on,” Judy Woodruff of PBS chimed in. “I think of pot as something you put a plant in.”

Thanks for that insight, Judy. As “elite” media pundits embarrass themselves on national television with silly, self-satisfied bromides, cities and states are wrestling with the very serious notion of legalizing, decriminalizing or otherwise changing marijuana laws.

In Colorado and Washington, pot possession is now legal. In Albuquerque and Santa Fe, residents are scrambling to put decriminalization on the ballot. As of this month in Washington, D.C., possession of an ounce of pot or less is punishable by a $25 fine.

Members of Congress have long been reluctant to even discuss, much less legislate on, the issue. Last week, I briefly interviewed New Mexico’s congressional delegation on pot policy. To their credit they took my questions seriously, but with the exception of Rep. Steve Pearce, the delegation’s lone Republican, none took a firm stand for or against changing the federal law.

“I think it’s time that it becomes a part of our policy debate,” said Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat. “Because Congress has done nothing about it – we don’t want to touch it – you’ve got local communities and states trying to figure out what to do.

“We’ve got more myths about marijuana than we do facts. I’m encouraged that the FDA is now studying marijuana so we’ll have more information. I’m certainly supportive of New Mexico or anybody else who wants to get that on the ballot and see what voters think, but there are always unintended consequences. I’m aware of that.”

Democratic Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich advocated a wait and see approach.

“Why don’t we watch Washington and Colorado for a couple of years and see what the results are there,” Udall said. “I think that’s a very legitimate approach.”

Udall, a former attorney general, said his understanding is that police in New Mexico rarely jail people for small amounts of marijuana, something he described as “de facto” decriminalization.

“The law enforcement community has been very smart to actually decriminalize, in fact,” Udall said. “If you ask the question ‘do people go to jail for a small amount of personal marijuana?’ the answer in New Mexico as far as I know, I don’t think you’re going to find anybody. Small amounts, personal use in the home you’re not going to find anything.”

Heinrich acknowledged that pot is less dangerous than cocaine, methamphetamine or other hard drugs.

“But I’m also cautious about where we’re going, and before people jump forward and assume they have all the answers on this stuff it would be smart to look at the states that are starting down this road, and to take some time and look at what works and what does not,” he said. “I think we need to be cautious.”

Pearce said he is staunchly opposed to any relaxation of marijuana laws.

“Anytime you’re going to legalize stuff that makes it harder to raise families and provide a productive workforce you just undermine the long-term prosperity of the nation,” Pearce said.

Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, a Democrat, said “the data is showing there should definitely be more support for decriminalization in some instances, but I still want to see everything that’s out there.”

Lujan also pointed to a 2013 vote of Congress to remove hemp – a type of cannabis sativa used to make rope, wax, paper and other products – from the list of federally controlled substances as a sign of change.

“I would say that’s a reflection that at least some elected officials that represent the United States have changed their approach to the way they are looking at this subject and are open to conversation,” Lujan said.

Email: mcoleman@abqjournal.com

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