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Reduced marijuana penalties advancing through House

SANTA FE — A proposal to reduce the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana is working its way toward the House floor as the legislative session nears adjournment.

The bill already passed the Senate on a 33-9 vote, and it cleared its first House committee Tuesday. It must make it through one more committee before reaching the House floor.

The session ends at noon Saturday.

Senate Bill 258, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, calls for a $50 fine — not the possibility of jail time — if someone is caught with a half ounce of marijuana or less. The person might have to pay some court fees on top of that.

Emily Kaltenbach of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group, said the proposal would make marijuana possession akin to a parking citation. People could pay the fine without clogging up the court system, she said, unless they want to contest the penalty.

“This is a very benign change to marijuana laws,” Kaltenbach said Tuesday. “It’ll save the state money.”

State public defenders also backed the bill, citing the reduced burden on the legal system.

The measure won a recommendation of passage from the House Consumer and Public Affairs Committee without dissent.

Rep. Monica Youngblood, R-Albuquerque, said she was concerned about the possibility of someone picking up possession charges repeatedly. She suggested stiffening the penalty for repeat offenses.

But the committee didn’t make any changes to the bill, and Youngblood voted for it.

Senate Bill 258 must also make it through the House Judiciary Committee, its last stop before the House floor.

Gov. Susana Martinez’s approval would be necessary for the bill to become law.