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Senate OKs bill to reduce pot penalties

SANTA FE – The Senate on Saturday voted to lessen penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana, while the House voted to clamp down on medical marijuana providers.

The bill to decriminalize the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana squeaked out of the Senate on a vote of 21-20 and went to the House, with a week to go in the legislative session.

Under the bill, an offender would be ticketed and fined $50 for having an ounce or less of the drug.

Possession of drug paraphernalia likewise would be treated with a ticket and a $50 fine.

Penalties also would be lessened for possession of up to eight ounces of marijuana. While it would remain a misdemeanor, offenders would not face jail time.

Under Senate Bill 383, having more than eight ounces of marijuana would remain a fourth-degree felony.

Supporters said the changes would ease the burden on police agencies, jails and the court system, freeing up money for use elsewhere.

“This is not legalization. This is decriminalization of less than one ounce,” said sponsor Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces.

Opponents said the legislation marked a step toward legalization.

“I think this bill opens that door,” said Sen. William Burt, R-Alamogordo.

The House, meanwhile, voted 34-24 to approve a measure that would require employees of licensed medical marijuana providers to pass criminal background checks.

It went to the Senate.

Some Democratic lawmakers blasted the legislation, saying it could place a stigma on working in the medical pot industry.

“This is inventing a solution for a problem that does not exist,” said Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park.

But Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, the sponsor of House Bill 527, said lawmakers need not wait for a scandal to occur before enacting such a policy.

“I think what we’re trying to do is take a preemptive step to make sure the program stays steady and there are no problems with it,” Pacheco said.

If approved, the bill would require the Department of Health to adopt rules around the background checks. But it also says certain drug-related felony convictions would permanently disqualify an employee from working for a medical marijuana dispensary.

There are currently 387 employees working for 23 different licensed providers in the state’s Medical Cannabis Program, Pacheco said during Saturday’s debate.

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