Marijuana Moves in Senate Committeee

Decriminalization measure is heading for a floor vote

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill that would relax penalties for possessing certain amounts of marijuana possession Monday night by a wide 7-3 margin.

The measure, sponsored by state Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Doña Ana, would reduce penalties for different amounts of marijuana.

Under the proposal, one ounce or less of marijuana would be subject to a $50 fine on a first offense and a petty misdemeanor punishable by up to $100 on a second offense; between one ounce and four ounces would prompt a $100 fine on first offense and a petty misdemeanor punishable by a $200 on second offense; carrying more than four ounces but less than eight ounces would be a misdemeanor punishable by a $300 fine. Eight ounces or higher, which is a felony under federal law, would remain the same.

Two Republicans—state Sens. Lisa Torraco, R-Bernalillo, and Ron Griggs, R-Doña—joined six Democrats on the committee in voting yes. But it wasn't necessarily for simple reasons.

Torraco raised several concerns about the way the penalties were written in the bill. Words like "penalty assessment misdemeanor" and "penalty misdemeanor" didn't seem to fit their legal definitions in the way they were written in the bill, she argued. But she said she'd vote for the bill to "see what happens anyway."

"Maybe it needs to move out of the criminal code," she said. "I'm not so sure it's right."

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Valencia, echoed a similar sentiment but supported the measure as well.

One Democrat, state Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Rio Arriba, voted against the measure because he said that lowering the penalty for four ounces of possession is too drastic. He added that he couldn't see the difference between penalizing four ounces and eight ounces, as they both constitute a lot of pot.

"I don't think anyone in my district can afford eight ounces," he said.

State Sen. William Payne, R-Bernalillo, made a similar point.

"Four ounces is a down jacket of marijuana," Payne said. "I think what it's going to do is encourage—there'll be a lot more sales."

State Sen. John Ryan, R-Bernalillo, said he didn't believe measuring pot by weight was as effective anymore with marijuana becoming more potent these days.

"I am aware there are greater potencies," Cervantes responded. "But the reality is we continue to measure drugs by weight. The weight alone is not part of the full picture, but that is the way we always measured [drug] crimes by law."

During debate, Griggs seemed like he would vote against the measure, making similar points about potency, telling Cervantes that "in order to be effective, we're going to have to do something different," and also raising concerns about the bill's legal language. Nevertheless, he ended up voting yes on the bill.

"I may not vote for it on the floor, but I want to see what comes of it in the meantime," he said.

The bill that now goes before the full Senate could turn out to be yet another symbolic vote on marijuana reform in New Mexico. Even if it passes in the Senate, it would then need to make its way through the Republican-dominated House and past a governor who's openly opposed to the idea.

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