S anta Fe’s police department is lagging when it comes to making the switch from enforcing state penalties for marijuana possession to city ones.
That, no one is debating. But officials are now presenting a new timeline about why.
Between January 1 and mid-April, public records show the city issued just three $25 fines for pot, while sending the rest of the cannabis cases to criminal court. Police Chief Eric Garcia tells SFR in a recent interview that his department is much closer to really implementing the herb's decriminalization, which was hastily granted by City Council last summer.
The main reason for the delayed reaction, he says, is all about the paperwork.
"The additional tool in itself, in my opinion, was a good one because it allows the officers to interact and de-escalate a situation," Garcia says, sitting in his office at the police headquarters on Cerrillos Road.
"The problem was, at the onset, when we first were given the go-ahead, the citations itself were not even considered."
As Garcia spoke, police on patrol still didn't have the right pieces of paper required to issue citations under the city ordinance. Yet on the rainy afternoon of May 4, just before SFR went to press, Capt. Marvin Paulk finally laid eyes on more than 125 triplicate booklets that police are now expected to use.
Paulk says he'll immediately distribute the forms to shift captains, who are expected to pass them to patrol officers right away.
Police had worked with the city attorney's office to create new citation booklets, which were printed in bulk and distributed to street officers in January. But Garcia says that after just a few days, those cops discovered the double-sided forms didn't have the right instructions on the back—namely informing suspected offenders how to petition for an administrative review. So they stopped using them. Then it took a long time for that information to filter up the command structure.
"We, unfortunately, were not given that message until maybe a month or two months later. It's no excuse," he says. "This is the straight-up truth. This is what happened, and I know there are some people saying that the Santa Fe PD is making excuses. They're not excuses. That is the truth."
While officers will still always have the right to issue criminal citations based on their discretion, Garcia says he'll advocate for the civil route in most instances. Unless, he says, someone chooses to not just partake but to be rude about it, too.
"I encourage the use of administrative citations," he says. "But people have got to keep in mind, it's still an arrestable offense."
And he has a bit of friendly advice:
"This is coming from the chief's desk, from my office, to the community: If you are caught with marijuana, just say 'I'm sorry.' Now, if it is a kilo, or if it is a haystack-size [bale] of marijuana, that is different, but if it is personal use and you've got a little bit on you, just apologize. We'll give you that administrative citation, and you'll be on your way," he says.
Reform advocates, such as the director of the NM Drug Policy Alliance, say they are taking the chief at his word. Emily Kaltenbach says Garcia is supportive of a law-enforcement diversion program that's keeping some local heroin addicts out of jail and in rehab.
"I believe the chief has a public health approach for our community, and I believe that approach will carry over to marijuana," Kaltenbach says.
The city's outright adoption of a decriminalization policy did come with little warning for the cops. A citizen petition sought to put the question on a city ballot for voters, but officials instead just changed the law late last summer. Although it technically hit the books a few weeks later, the Oct. 8, 2014, adoption of administrative procedures about the new civil penalty marked its real effective date.
A chain of email correspondence among the police, the city attorney's office and the city judge show that even then, officials weren't all on the same page.
"Dear Chiefs," wrote Judge Ann Yalman on Oct. 29, "I had to dismiss 6 possession charges today because they all concerned marijuana, and I lost jurisdiction over those charges on September 10."
Garcia says he hopes other cities can learn from what didn't go smoothly in Santa Fe.
"I would like to see more municipalities kick it off," he says, "but my recommendation to them is that they need to get everything lined up before it is actually implemented."