Leaders in New Mexico’s biggest city are trying again to remove criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Albuquerque New MexicoTwo members of the Albuquerque City Council were expected to file a proposed ordinance in September that would decriminalize marijuana citywide. Instead of facing arrest and jail time, low-level users would simply be fined.

The ordinance was proposed by City Council President Rey Garduño and Council Member Isaac Benton. It would change a section of city code to replace incarceration with small civil fines, while a related bill would force the Albuquerque Police Department to treat weed as its lowest enforcement priority.

“Incarcerating people through this failed War on Drugs for possessing a small amount of marijuana is creating criminals where none exist,” Garduño said in a statement.

This is the second time in two years advocates have pushed for local decriminalization. A similar campaign won unanimous support from the council in 2014 but ran into a veto by Mayor Richard Berry.

Support is strong

The biggest change in the meantime: Recent polls suggest support for the idea is strong; at least 50 percent of voters in each of Albuquerque’s council districts back decriminalization of minor cannabis offenses. Proponents hope that support will be enough to change Berry’s mind this time around.

The ordinance was filed Sept. 9, and the full city council was expected to debate it by the end of September. If it were to pass, pot users caught with less than an ounce of marijuana would face a simple $25 fine instead of two weeks behind bars. There would be no criminal conviction and thus no criminal record.

Marijuana possession is still a crime in most of New Mexico. Penalties for possession of up to an ounce include as many as 15 days in jail and $100 in fines on a first offense. On a repeat conviction, the penalty increases to a maximum of one year in jail and $1,000.

growing marijuanaDecriminalized in certain areas

But some localities, including nearby Santa Fe, have already removed criminal penalties on their own. What’s more, neighboring Colorado allows legal weed, meaning a stoner could do serious jail time in one place for an offense that’s decriminalized or even legal a short drive away.

New Mexico allows medical marijuana, but the state’s approach to recreational weed is out of tune with its Western roots and libertarian political leanings. It isn’t on many short lists to legalize next year, but full reform is likely on the way soon.

Local decriminalization is an increasingly effective method for reformers who can’t yet get rid of criminal penalties at the state level. Numerous large cities, from Philadelphia to Portland, Maine, have removed jail time for simple marijuana possession.


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