Santa Fe Decriminalizes Marijuana

City Council votes 5-4 to reduce marijuana penalties

In a surprise move, Santa Fe City Council voted to decriminalized marijuana Wednesday night.

The resolution, passed narrowly on a 5-4 vote, changes the city's penalties for possessing one ounce of marijuana or less and marijuana-related paraphernalia from a criminal misdemeanor punishable by a $50-$100 fine and up to 15 days in prison to a civil infraction and a $25 fee. It also instructs the city's police officers to treat possession of small amounts of marijuana as the lowest law enforcement priority.

The vote comes after a summer's worth of organizing by Drug Policy Action and ProgressNow NM to get a decriminalization question to voters on the November general election ballot this fall. Santa Fe is now the first city in New Mexico to decriminalize petty pot crimes. Emily Kaltenbach, state director of Drug Policy Action, a 501(c)4 affiliated with Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico, came out of the Council chambers with mixed emotions.

"Obviously from a policy perspective, this is incredible," Kaltenbach says. "The people have won tonight no matter what."

But she adds that the Reducing Marijuana Penalties initiative was formed with the intent to let voters have a say on the issue. Petitioners submitted more than 11,000 signatures from residents to get the question on the ballot this fall.

"I think there are going to be a lot of disappointed voters who wanted to show their direct support," she says. "That's the reason we went to gather all those signatures. That one vote, one voice is probably the most pure direct form of democracy."

City Councilors Patti Bushee, Signe Lindell, Peter Ives, Joseph Maestas and Carmichael Dominguez voted in favor of the measure. Voting against were Councilors Bill Dimas, Chris Rivera, Ron Trujillo and Mayor Javier Gonzales. Gonzales, who spoke in support of marijuana legalization during his campaign for office earlier this year, voiced his personal support for decriminalization before the vote.

"Now I've been very clear where I stand on this issue, I am in favor of decriminalizing marijuana," he said at the meeting. "But I don't feel tonight that we have adequately told the public that this is actually what is being considered. I think we have said that there is requests for a vote to take place by the voters. So I think that if we are to pass it tonight as the motion is asking us, there are a lot of people that would probably weigh in to this discussion that didn't come out tonight."

Several councilors expressed concerns at the potential a ballot initiative would cost the city. City Clerk Yolanda Vigil told councilors that placing an initiative on the November General Election ballot could cost up to $80,000. An alternative was to push the initiative back to the March 2016 municipal election, which some councilors expressed concern would be too long of a wait.

"I think March of 2016 is just too far down the road," Maestas said.

Others alluded to the potential hurdle from the Secretary of State's Office in approving the initiative for this November's ballot.

"If we could save ourselves $80,000 and some uncertainty, I think that would be grand," Lindell said.

In her vote in favor of the ordinance, Bushee urged that it was time to act now after a long failure of the "war on drugs." Both Ives and Dominguez spoke about their concerns about people caught up in the justice system who start out on marijuana crimes.

"I have seen the damage incarceration has caused," Dominguez said. "The reality is drugs are there as well."

Dimas and Trujillo said they both support bringing the question to voters but couldn't support the council voting for the measure. Trujillo spoke about his personal opposition to the measure.

"Look at what happened to Len Bias," he said in one of the more bizarre moments of the night.

Len Bias, the No. 2 National Basketball Association draft pick of 1986, died of a cocaine overdose before his professional basketball career got started.

At least one petitioner of the ballot initiative was happy with the outcome. Paul Hillman, who's been smoking pot since 1967 and has still been able to have "a fabulous corporate career," says he was happy to see the City Council get decriminalization over with.

"I feel like a big weight has been lifted of my shoulders," says Hillman, who gathered more than 1,000 signatures for the effort. "And I feel that the popular support would have been favorable to tonight."

It was unclear Wednesday night how long it would be before the ordinance takes effect. City spokesman Matt Ross says officials will use an administrative process to phase in the rule over the next several days. Even with the city law change, city police officers will still be able to pursue charges under the state criminal code where penalties remain higher.

Read a memo on the topic from City Attorney Kelley Brennan here.

Santa Fe Reporter

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