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Two city councilors to push for marijuana decriminalization

Two Albuquerque city councilors plan to introduce legislation next week that would make it a civil offense — not a criminal violation — under city law to possess an ounce or less of marijuana.

Their proposal would also declare marijuana as the lowest law-enforcement priority for city police.

Officers, however, would still have discretion to cite people under the state law for marijuana possession — the penalties for which can include up to 15 days in jail and fines up to $100 as a criminal petty misdemeanor.

Councilors Rey Garduño and Isaac Benton plan to introduce their proposals at Wednesday’s council meeting and schedule them for action Sept. 21.

Benton said the legislation makes sense, given the shortage of officers in Albuquerque’s police force.

“I don’t really feel this type of enforcement is the best use of our resources,” Benton told the Journal. “This simply establishes a local policy of what’s important, what’s a priority.”

The city of Santa Fe enacted similar legislation last year. A Journal review this spring found that Santa Fe officers, however, continued to cite people under the state law rather than under the new city ordinance.

Marijuana decriminalization, in any case, appears to be popular in the Albuquerque area. About 60 percent of Bernalillo County voters last year responding to a nonbinding ballot question expressed support for decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Mayor Richard Berry, however, may stand in the way. He vetoed council legislation last year that sought to put the marijuana question on the November general-election ballot. Berry argued that decriminalization conflicted with state and federal law.

A spokeswoman said Friday that the mayor’s position hasn’t changed.

A marijuana question ended up on the Nov. 4 ballot anyway after the County Commission approved it.

Emily Kaltenbach of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group, said the proposed changes in Albuquerque are important, partly because a drug conviction can interfere with someone’s ability to get a job or secure loans.

“The idea that people are actually going to jail for possession of small amounts of marijuana is not worth the taxpayer resources,” she said, and there’s “also the collateral consequences when someone has a misdemeanor on their record.”

The proposed ordinance backed by Garduño and Benton would remove from the city’s criminal code the possibility of jail time for possessing an ounce or less of marijuana. Instead, it would be a civil infraction that could result in a $25 fine, unless the person has a medical prescription for it.

A companion resolution they’re introducing would declare it city policy that investigating, arresting or prosecuting people for possessing an ounce or less of marijuana would be the “lowest law enforcement priority.”

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