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Pot petition signature drive comes up short

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

The petition drive to reduce marijuana penalties failed to collect enough valid signatures to trigger an election on the issue, according to figures released by the Albuquerque City Clerk’s Office.

But supporters of the marijuana campaign say city staffers arbitrarily disqualified many of the signatures they gathered for reasons that either weren’t clear or for something as simple as a person signing their name as “Matt” instead of “Matthew.”

Pat Davis of ProgressNow New Mexico, which worked on the campaign, said supporters of the effort are meeting with attorneys to go over their options.

“Our concern is, we don’t know what the real number is because the process was so arbitrary,” Davis said in an interview. “We know we had enough signatures to do this.”

Acting City Clerk Trina Gurule said the allegation of arbitrary disqualifications “is incorrect.”

Workers are trained to accept a signature as valid even if there’s slight variation, such as a missing middle initial or a “Matt” instead of “Matthew,” from what’s on the voter’s registration card.

The marijuana campaign turned in 15,916 signatures, the clerk said. Out of those, only 9,172 were approved as having come from valid, registered city voters, according to the city.

That’s a problem because 14,218 signatures are required under the City Charter to trigger an election on the issue, the city says.

Even that figure is the subject of some dispute. The city initially told the marijuana campaign that only 11,203 signatures were needed.

After the group turned in its signatures, the city said it had made a mistake – that the higher number is required because it’s equal to 20 percent of the turnout in the last mayoral election. Someone had simply made a mistake in figuring out what turnout figure to use in calculations, city officials said.

“We will make some quick decisions with our attorneys on how to go forward to stand up for the voters” who signed, Davis said.

The petition drive is aimed at reducing the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

A city ordinance 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 proposal seeks to make the maximum penalty a $25 fine and no jail time. Possession of marijuana would be “a lowest law enforcement priority.”

Nevertheless, 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 under state law.

There’s also debate over whether the proposed marijuana ordinance, if enacted, would be pre-empted by state law, anyway. Cities generally have the freedom to enact laws that are at least as strict as the state’s, but not to relax them. The relaxed pot penalties in Albuquerque would be vulnerable to a legal challenge, according to an assistant city attorney.

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