By Mary Hudetz
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Two Albuquerque city councilors are pushing to decriminalize marijuana possession in cases where a person is caught with an ounce (28 grams) or less, saying their proposal will free up police time and resources to focus on more serious crimes.
Councilors Pat Davis and Isaac Benton announced their proposal Monday to amend Albuquerque’s criminal code by making low-level pot possession and paraphernalia without a valid medical marijuana referral a citable offense that can come with a $25 ticket but no jail time.
The proposed change —which still must go before the City Council and mayor for approval — would add Albuquerque to a growing list of municipalities that have decriminalized possessing pot in small amounts, including Orlando and Pittsburgh. Nine states and Washington, D.C, have already legalized recreational marijuana.
“It’s been needed for many years,” said Emily Kaltenbach, the state director in New Mexico for the Drug Policy Alliance, which has advocated nationally for easing drug sentencing laws. “New Mexico is sort of behind the curve when it comes to marijuana reform.”
She added that a single arrest for marijuana possession can hinder a person’s chances at securing housing or student loans. New Mexico is also among a handful of states where marijuana possession on a person’s record can block his or her chances of getting approval to adopt a child, she said.
Under the city’s criminal code now, police can issue $50 fines to first-time offenders possessing an ounce or less of marijuana. Authorities can also decide to send the first-time offenders to jail for a maximum of 15 days, though such instances appear to be rare. The fines and penalties increase with a second violation.
A review of Metropolitan Detention Center bookings over the past week showed no one was booked into the jail following an Albuquerque police arrest on a sole petty misdemeanor charge of paraphernalia or marijuana possession. Bernalillo County Sheriff’s deputies only made one such arrest in Albuquerque resulting in a jail booking in Albuquerque in the same period.
The low rate of arrests has raised some question from skeptics, including Rep. Monica Youngblood, an Albuquerque Republican, over the proposal’s impact. As a state lawmaker, she expressed opposition to legalizing marijuana in the past, saying she believes the state has bigger problems to address.
“I don’t see that people are being arrested or rearrested or that the justice system is being packed with all of these low-level possession crimes,” she said. “I don’t see that it’s an issue or something we should be concerned about.”
Citing Albuquerque police data, Davis, a former law enforcement officer and Democrat, said that in a recent 12-month period there were 177 instances in which marijuana possession was listed as the top offense. Each arrest or citation was likely to have resulted in potentially hours of police time to process.
In 2015, a similar proposal went before the City Council, but was vetoed by Mayor Richard Berry, a Republican. Berry was replaced late last year by Tim Keller, a Democrat.
Davis said he believes the proposal’s prospects have been boosted by the change in administrations.
The measure also has backing from the city’s police union.
This story corrects a previous version to say a similar ordinance was vetoed in 2015, not 2014.
Photo by Andreas Dress