You might call it an “altitude check.”
Voters in Santa Fe County have a chance to weigh in on just how high they are on seeing their elected officials, law enforcement and courts lighten up on marijuana laws.
They will do so by answering an advisory question appearing on the Tuesday general election ballot that asks whether the County Commission should “support county, city and statewide efforts to decriminalize possession of one ounce or less of marijuana.”
But as merely an advisory question, the results are non-binding and won’t do anything to change any laws. So does the outcome of the vote really matter?
“Absolutely, it does,” said Emily Kaltenbach, state director of Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit group that advocates for responsible drug reform and a leader in the effort to have the question placed on the ballot.
The Drug Policy Alliance and ProgressNow New Mexico, an Albuquerque-based nonprofit that promotes a liberal agenda, led a grass roots effort that included petition drives in Albuquerque and Santa Fe to have marijuana decriminalization laws placed on the ballot.
The petition effort was successful in Santa Fe. But, in the end, the Santa Fe City Council eschewed taking the measure to the electorate and instead adopted on its own a pot decriminalization law, set to start being enforced in the next few weeks, that makes possession of an ounce or less of pot a civil nuisance violation subject to a $25 fine under city code.
But the state criminal pot possession statute can also still be enforced in Santa Fe, at a police officer’s discretion.
In Albuquerque, the petition drive to put decriminalization on the ballot fell short. The County Commission then put an advisory question similar to Santa Fe County’s on Tuesday’s general election ballot.
“This is one of the best ways we have to educate our elected officials about what the electorate wants,” Kaltenbach said. “It’s time for our elected officials to listen to voters and act upon their will.”
Santa Fe County Commissioner Liz Stefanics wants to hear from her constituents on the issue. That’s why she made the motion during a special meeting in late August to have the question placed on the ballot.
“My interest in doing that came from the thousands of people who signed petitions so they could have a voice on this topic. This gives them a say,” she said. “Another thing it does is, it also sends a message to law enforcement, to judges, to district attorneys and to our state elected officials about how the majority of people in Santa Fe County feel about decriminalization.”
Republican Party officials and others have called the ballot question a do-nothing proposal intended only to lure more progressive voters to the polls. Also, City Council members like Bill Dimas and Ron Trujillo have opposed pot decriminalization, saying it puts out the welcome mat for drug dealers and that marijuana is a gateway to more dangerous drug use.
Stefanics says it’s no sure thing a majority will vote “yes” on the question. She’s talked to plenty of people who don’t support decriminalization.
“Many people with young children or people who are struggling with substance abuse in their families don’t want to see it propagated,” she said of drug use. “So I think there will be mixed results. I think it’ll be an interesting vote.”
Not just a token vote
While the question asks voters whether they support “county, city and statewide efforts,” Commissioner Stefanics says there’s little the county can do.
“The issue is we’re not a home rule county, so there are some differences in what the city can do and what the county is allowed to do,” she said. “It’s my understanding that we can’t pass an ordinance, but we could pass a resolution in support of it.”
That’s Commissioner Kathy Holian’s understanding, too.
“We could pass a resolution to ask the state to change the law,” she said, adding the county could also lobby the Legislature. “So I do think that it would have an effect on the legislators who represent Santa Fe County, and Bernalillo County, in the long run.”
Holian, who supports decriminalization but stopped short of advocating legalization, said she’s glad the question is on the ballot if only to bring attention to the topic. “I think it’s an issue whose time has come and I think it’s good that we have a dialogue about it,” she said.
Commissioner Miguel Chavez agreed. He said the conversation is having to take place at the local level because the issue isn’t being dealt with at the hirer rungs of government.
“It goes back to the core question: Why are we putting this on the ballot?” he said. “Local governments are addressing issues the central government is not addressing right now, and this is one of them. If the central government would address it and act in a proactive way, we wouldn’t be dealing with this.”
Chavez fully supports decriminalization. He believes the War on Drugs has been counterproductive and has especially harmed young, minority men, many of whom can’t afford effective legal counsel.
He likened laws against marijuana to the prohibition era of the 1920s and early ’30s when the production and sale of alcohol was illegal. The only people who prospered from it were the criminals.
“It’s maybe not much different than prohibition; it’s certainly a different time and different ingredients,” he said. “But the public is having a discussion about it now, and that’s good.
Pat Davis of ProgressNow New Mexico said he doesn’t think New Mexico is ready to make marijuana legal just yet, but public attitudes are changing. In the meantime, his group is working to keep the momentum going.
“We want to be very careful,” he said. “Public polling has shown that New Mexico is not ready for legalization, but it does want decriminalization … . We wouldn’t have (worked to put it on the ballot) if it wasn’t ready to be won.”
Davis said polling done in May showed 60 percent of New Mexicans supported decriminalization. He expects that to be reflected in the results of next Tuesday’s vote.
“I’ll be shocked if it comes in anything less than 60 percent,” he said.
The outcome of the vote needs to be decisive to keep the momentum going in New Mexico, Davis said.
“This is not one of those issues where 51 percent wins the ball game,” he said. “We have to show that there’s strong public support to put the pressure on the Legislature.”
“We know the support is there,” said Kaltenbach. “The most important thing is for people to get out and vote, and have their voices heard.”