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ABQ Council narrowly supports reducing marijuana penalties

City Councilors Isaac Benton, left, and Rey Garduño listen to speakers comment about legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana at Monday’s council meeting. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

City Councilors Isaac Benton, left, and Rey Garduño listen to speakers comment about legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana at Monday’s council meeting. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Albuquerque city councilors don’t want people going to jail simply for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

But they may not get to decide.

The council late Monday voted 5-4 along party lines in favor of making it a civil offense – not a criminal violation – under city law to possess an ounce or less of marijuana.

The council also adopted a resolution declaring marijuana a low law enforcement priority for city police.

Mayor Richard Berry, however, plans to veto the legislation, citing conflicts with state and federal law.

The council won’t have enough votes to override a veto unless an opponent switches position.

Both bills passed along party lines, with Democrats in the majority. Isaac Benton and Rey Garduño sponsored the legislation.

They pleaded with opponents to support the change in marijuana policy, if not on the merits, then because their constituents do.

About 60 percent of Bernalillo County voters last year expressed support for decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. The vote was in response to a nonbinding question on the general election ballot.

“The community wants to make sure we don’t criminalize youth, especially, but anyone with a small amount of marijuana,” Garduño said.

Benton said a conviction for marijuana possession can make it tough to get a job or rent a home.

“Criminal records can change lives,” he said.

Berry, a Republican, opposes the legislation. Rob Perry, Albuquerque’s chief administrative officer and a former city attorney, said the city ordinance could face legal trouble.

The mayor “is concerned about local government impinging on the criminal justice policy of the state of New Mexico and the federal government,” Perry said.

Even if the marijuana legislation became city law, police officers would still have discretion to cite people under the state law – the penalties for which can include up to 15 days in jail and fines up to $100 as a criminal petty misdemeanor.

In Santa Fe, for example, the city government enacted similar legislation last year, but officers continued to cite people under the state law rather than under the new city ordinance, according to a Journal review earlier this year.

In Albuquerque, the idea triggered intense debate over about 90 minutes during Monday’s council meeting.

Councilors Don Harris and Dan Lewis, both Republicans, said the city isn’t the right venue for changing marijuana laws. The debate should happen at the state or federal level, they said.

“I really don’t like using the city of Albuquerque ordinances in symbolic fashion to make a point,” Harris said.

Councilors Trudy Jones and Brad Winter, also Republicans, joined Lewis and Harris in opposition.

In favor were Benton, Garduño, Ken Sanchez, Diane Gibson and Klarissa Peña, all Democrats.

“We’re incarcerating people who really aren’t a threat to society,” Sanchez said.

The ordinance 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 would declare it city policy that investigating, arresting or prosecuting people for possessing an ounce or less of marijuana would be a low law-enforcement priority.

About 10 people spoke in favor of passing the marijuana legislation. No one signed up to speak in opposition.

Brett Phelps, a University of New Mexico law student, said the legislation “is not an effort to legalize marijuana.

“This is strictly about decriminalization, which is only about keeping people out of jail,” said Phelps, chapter president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy at the law school. “The less people we have in jail, the more productive of a city we have.”

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