Decriminalization Questions Pass; What's Next?

Get ready for some marijuana legislation next year

Locally and nationally, two victors stood out in Tuesday night's midterm election: Republicans and marijuana.

Voters in Oregon and Alaska made history by making their homes the third and fourth states to legalize sales of recreational marijuana in the United States. Washington DC voted to remove all criminal penalties from pot. And while pot did take a setback when Florida voters rejected a medical marijuana program, two counties in New Mexico showed support for decriminalizing possession of small amounts of it.

A symbolic ballot initiative in two counties asking voters to weigh in on marijuana decriminalization met wide approval Tuesday night. Yes votes in Bernalillo County outnumbered no votes 59 to 40 percent. In Santa Fe, voters approved the measure 73 percent to 26 percent.

ProgressNow New Mexico and Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico declared victory midway into the evening for the measures they helped spearhead earlier this summer.

"After six months of working on campaigns that went from local city ballot initiatives to multicounty campaigns, we are thrilled that over a third of our state's population has sent a clear message on marijuana decriminalization in New Mexico," ProgressNow Executive Director Pat Davis said in a statement.

Albuquerque City Councilor Rey Garduño said a victory in Bernalillo County would prompt him to introduce decriminalization legislation in City Hall similar to what's already on the books in Santa Fe. Though Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry vetoed a similar decriminalization bill Garduño introduced earlier this year, Garduño says this time he'll argue that it has the voters' support.

"I hope that would be instructive to the mayor," he says.

The advisory question votes could also help propel efforts to bring marijuana reform statewide during the upcoming state legislative session, which will begin Jan. 20. Both advocacy organizations signaled that they will be pushing the issue.

"I think that the same reforms we've been seeing introduced over the last couple of years will continue to be introduced as the will of the voters becomes more heard," says Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Emily Kaltenbach.

Indeed, State House Majority Whip Antonio "Moe" Maestas, D-Bernalillo, tells us to look for three bills tackling the issue next session. One will be a constitutional amendment prohibiting the criminalization of marijuana, another will be an amendment legalizing small amounts of marijuana and a third will be legislation to lower penalties on small amounts of marijuana, much like the decriminalization ordinance the city of Santa Fe enacted in August.

The latter two reforms were introduced as bills during the last two legislative sessions. State Rep. Emily Kane, D-Bernalillo, carried the decriminalization bill in 2013, where it passed the House by four votes but died quickly in Senate committee.

"I think we need to get some good allies in the Senate," Kane, who faced a too-close-to-call reelection late Tuesday, told SFR earlier in the day.

A reintroduction of Kane's 2013 bill is also vulnerable to a veto by Gov. Susana Martinez, who has made it clear in public comments that she doesn't support reducing marijuana law enforcement penalties. Martinez cruised to reelection for a second term Tuesday evening. A GOP takeover of the state House, which seemed possible as of Tuesday night, also raises questions about how far such reform efforts can go this time.

Any amendment to the state Constitution can pass both legislative chambers without approval from the governor. The electorate would then have to approve the amendment in a future election.

State Sen. Jerry Ortiz y Pino, D-Bernalillo, introduced a constitutional amendment to legalize small amounts of marijuana during the 2014 session. It died in committee, but he's expected to introduce it again.

Either way, Maestas says he's convinced that public opinion doesn't view marijuana as a major public health risk.

"It's the consequences of a marijuana conviction that just kills people," Maestas says. "If you have a policy, whether you're a university, a corporation of whomever, that is, 'If you have a drug conviction you can't work here,' then a marijuana conviction is the same as a pound of crystal meth. It's still an illegal drug conviction."

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