A question that will ask Santa Fe voters whether marijuana penalties should be decriminalized is one step closer to making the city's election ballot this November.

City Clerk Yolanda Vigil has informed backers of the Reducing Marijuana Penalties initiative that she has verified enough valid signatures to meet the guidelines for a ballot initiative. The initiative, spearheaded by ProgressNow NM and Drug Policy Action, a 501(c)4 affiliated with Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, has collected nearly 11,000 signatures since June. Yet, because signatures must come from registered city voters in order to be certified by the city clerk, many of those names were crossed off the list. 

Santa Fe required 5,673 valid signatures to get the question on the ballot—the first successful drive since the city adopted the initiative rules as part of its governing charter in 2008. The marijuana initiative would pose a question to city voters about whether Santa Fe should reduce penalties for possessing one ounce of marijuana or less and possessing marijuana-related paraphernalia from criminal misdemeanors subject to $50-$100 fines and up to 15 days in prison down to civil infractions subject to a $25 fine.

In a statement issued Sunday and embargoed until this morning, Drug Policy New Mexico State Director Emily Kaltenbach said that the number of people who signed petitions "shows that the citizens of Santa Fe are ready for a change in how we police marijuana in our city and they are ready to make history."

"Santa Feans want and can put an end to using taxpayers' dollars that could otherwise be used by law enforcement on more pressing crime; put an end to policies that scar low-level marijuana users with a serious criminal history that can prevent them from obtaining scholarships, future job placement and a prosperous future; and, put an end to racially disproportionate marijuana arrests," Kaltenbach said.

The initiative suffered a minor hiccup when it didn't submit enough valid signatures to the city clerk during a self-imposed deadline on July 15. The first deadline was meant to give the city clerk enough time to verify the signatures and City Council enough time to put the question on the ballot as smoothly as possible.

Still, City Council scheduled a public hearing on the issue for its Aug. 27 meeting. Now that the signature threshold has been met, councilors can move to either put the question on the ballot for voters or decide to make the decriminalization language law themselves.

Vigil says an official certification document will be delivered to city councilors showing that the group submitted 10,925 signatures, but 5,171 were rejected, leaving 5,754 that she considers valid. The most common reason her office rejected signatures were names of those who were not registered to vote in the city or names and addresses that did not match what her files show, she says, adding that some names on the petition were also duplicates.

A similar decriminalization effort by the same organizers in Albuquerque has not been as successful. There, the city initially reported that 11,203 valid signatures were required to make the ballot. After the deadline passed and the initiative turned in nearly 16,000 signatures, city officials told organizers that they had made a mistake and that they actually needed 14,218 signatures. The clerk there certified 9,172 signatures, fewer than both numbers.

Still, Albuquerque City Councilor Rey Garduño says he's planning to introduce a resolution that would bring the question on a ballot in a nonbinding resolution asking the Albuquerque City Council to pass the decriminalization language into law.