Debate over decriminalizing pot heats up - Albuquerque Journal

Debate over decriminalizing pot heats up

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s politically charged debate over marijuana decriminalization intensified Tuesday with two counties, the secretary of state and the state Supreme Court embroiled in legal questions over November ballots.

And the governor had something to say, too.

Santa Fe County joined Bernalillo County in challenging Secretary of State Dianna Duran’s decision to not allow advisory questions on the Nov. 4 ballot. Duran’s office, meanwhile, said she would go to federal court to challenge the state Supreme Court for holding up the mailing of ballots to certain overseas voters.

Meanwhile, Gov. Susana Martinez doubled down on her opposition to reducing penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana, saying such decriminalization attempts are a “horrible, horrible idea.”

Martinez, a Republican and former prosecutor, made the comments at a law enforcement conference in Santa Fe, telling those in attendance she will remain opposed to legislative decriminalization and legalization proposals.

“In New Mexico, as long as I’m governor, I’m not signing that bill,” said Martinez, who is running for re-election this year.

The state Supreme Court on Monday had ordered election workers to postpone the mailing of general-election ballots this weekend until the court can decide whether it’s legal for Bernalillo County to add so-called advisory questions to the ballot.

One of the two non-binding Bernalillo County questions would center on marijuana decriminalization, while the other would be on raising taxes for mental-health programs.

Duran complained Tuesday about the Supreme Court stay for Bernalillo County ballots, saying it will hold up the mailing of ballots to overseas voters.

She said she will ask her lawyers to file a motion in federal court “to take this case out of the hands” of the state’s highest court.

“Equal protection of New Mexico voters is at stake here,” she said.

Duran said federal law requires New Mexico to send ballots to military personnel no later than Sept. 20. The Supreme Court hearing is not scheduled until Sept. 23.

“I believe it is a terrible shame for the New Mexico Supreme Court to ignore federal law and to show disregard for our servicemen and -women who are serving throughout the world,” Duran said.

She said it was the fourth consecutive election in which state courts have delayed sending ballots to members of the armed forces.

Also Tuesday, the Santa Fe County Commission voted unanimously to take legal action against Duran to require her to put its own non-binding pot possession question on the ballot in Santa Fe County. The county later filed an emergency petition for a writ of mandamus in the Supreme Court.

“This is not so much about the marijuana question, it’s about clarifying the Secretary of State’s authority and the county commission’s authority in placing a question on the ballot,” said Commissioner Liz Stefanics.

Earlier this month, the Santa Fe commission voted to include a question on the ballot asking voters whether the commission should support city, county and statewide efforts to decriminalize possession of one ounce or less of marijuana.

Santa Fe County’s Supreme Court petition says the secretary of state was in error when she unilaterally determined that advisory questions were unlawful. Her actions “contradict clear law, which places the content and placement of the local ballot questions under the exclusive control of a county clerk and the corresponding board of county commissioners when it adopts an enabling resolution,” the petition states.

Duran decided last week that state law doesn’t allow advisory questions on the ballot. That sparked the lawsuits by Santa Fe and Bernalillo counties.

Duran said a third county – Chaves County in southeastern New Mexico – had asked about potential nonbinding ballot questions to poll voters on several issues, including a ban on wolves, requiring voter identification, concealed handguns and a right-to-work measure.

“We informed the county manager that advisory questions on a general election ballot are not authorized in statute or in the constitution,” Duran said in a statement. “Questions on the general election ballot have to be authorized in law, and must enact law.”

The issue of marijuana policy has emerged as a topic of national debate and two western states — – Colorado and Washington – recently OK’d recreational use of the drug, despite the fact that it remains illegal under federal law.

In New Mexico, advocates for reducing marijuana penalties in Albuquerque and Santa Fe collected thousands of signatures this summer in an attempt to have pot initiatives placed on the Nov. 4 general election ballot. The Albuquerque effort fell short.

The Santa Fe City Council later decided to bypass voters and adopt a decriminalization measure on its own.

The governor has previously expressed opposition to decriminalization policies, and her Tuesday remarks included new concerns about the impact of the Colorado law – which only applies to individuals age 18 and older.

She told those in attendance the legalization movement has caused problems in New Mexico. When asked to elaborate, Martinez said Colorado’s law could lead to more people bringing pot into New Mexico.

“There is certainly the potential that people who possess and use lawfully in Colorado can cross state lines in any direction and … cause issues for law enforcement in those areas,” Martinez told reporters.

Emily Kaltenbach, the director of the New Mexico Drug Policy Alliance, countered by saying Martinez’s stance on the issue is harmful to New Mexico families.

“The collateral consequences for being arrested for a small amount of marijuana (in the state) are quite significant,” she told the Journal.

Martinez’s opponent, Democratic Attorney General Gary King, has said that if elected he would push for reduced criminal penalties for personal marijuana use, though he opposes legalizing recreational pot consumption.

Journal staff writers Deborah Baker and T.S. Last and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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