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Santa Fe City Council reduces marijuana penalties

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – There won’t be an election on whether to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in Santa Fe after all – a divided City Council went ahead and adopted a decriminalization measure late Wednesday night.

The vote was 5 to 4 to pass an ordinance that makes having an ounce or less of pot only a civil infraction, punishable by a fine of no more than $25. Councilors who voted for passage said it would save the cost of putting the measure on the ballot, estimated by the City Clerk’s office at as much as $80,000.

“$80,000 is a lot of money,” said Councilor Joseph Maestas.

Councilor Bill Dimas, who voted in the minority, said the petition drive that brought the proposal before the council called for an election. Noting that he lost a daughter to drugs, he said others with the same experience should have a chance to vote on whether to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

Mayor Javier Gonzales also wanted the voters to decide the issue, saying the council itself didn’t propose decriminalization. He said he favors the proposal but the council hadn’t provided adequate notice that the council would adopt the measure on its own. Of the expense of putting the issues before the voters, he said, “Democracy does have its costs.”

Councilors favoring adopting decriminalization by council vote cited the cost of arrests on and prosecution of marijuana charges and the sometimes bad side effects of incarceration of drug offenders, as well as saving the cost of an election. Another no-cost option was to put the proposal before voters at the next city election in March 2016, but councilors said that was too long to wait.

Voting for council passage of the measure were Maestas and Councilors Patti Bushee, Peter Ives, Signe Lindell and Carmichael Dominguez. In the no column were Gonzales, Dimas and Councilors Ron Trujillo and Chris Rivera.

Rivera questioned if police officers were being set up for profiling accusations because they would have the option to either charge people under either the existing state law or cite offenders under the city ordinance with no criminal charge.

Trujillo was the most vocal opponent of decriminalization, asking “What’s next?” saying it might be an ounce of meth or cocaine. “I’ve seen what’s happened to so many people,” he said.

The effort to get the measure before city voters was led by ProgressNow New Mexico and Drug Policy Action. They collected more than 5,000 signatures from registered city voters, enough to get it on the ballot as per the city charter.

On Tuesday, the County Commission – in charge of the ballot for the general election – had certified the pot proposal for the ballot, contingent on the City Council’s OK.

Secretary of State Diana Duran has raised concerns about whether there is room on the ballot for the measure. But County Clerk Geraldine Salazar told the commission her office has experimented with mock ballots and she believes fitting the question in was “doable.”

Under current state law, first-time offenders in possession of less than an ounce of marijuana are charged with a petty misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $100 and up to 15 days in jail. City Attorney Kelley Brennan on Wednesday provided an opinion that the decriminalization measure is legal and doesn’t conflict with state law.

City Clerk Yolanda Vigil said the $80,000 in possible costs to put the proposal on the November general election ballot was not “set in stone” and actual expenses could be much less. Maestas said he was worried that Duran’s concerns about the ballot could delay the proposal and had complicated the idea of getting quick action on the measure absent council action.