Pubdate: Tue, 22 Sep 2015
Source: Albuquerque Journal (NM)
Copyright: 2015 Albuquerque Journal
Author: Dan McKay


Mayor Plans to Veto Legislation, Citing State, Federal Law Conflict

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 Garduno 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," Garduno 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, Garduno, Ken Sanchez, Diane Gibson and Klarissa 
Pena, 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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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom