Albuquerque City Council Votes to Decriminalize Cannabis

Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA - October 4, 2014: Hot air balloons rise above the skyline. The balloon festival starts early in the morning, before sunrise, with throngs of people gathering to watch the festivities.

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.  — The Albuquerque City Council voted to decriminalize cannabis possession in small amounts Monday night, after lengthy testimony from citizens mostly urging them to approve the change to the local criminal code.

Under the new law, adult possession of up to one ounce could result in a $25 ticket but no jail time.

The proposal put forward by city council members Pat Davis and Isaac Benton would amend Albuquerque’s criminal code by making it a citable offense to possess an ounce (28 grams) of cannabis and paraphernalia without a valid medical marijuana referral.

Authorities could issue a $25 ticket but no jail time. Councilman Pat Davis equated the penalty to a traffic ticket, saying that for many it would “beat having to check a box for the rest of your life” and deal with years of consequences that can result from having a cannabis misdemeanor show up on a court record.

He and Councilman Isaac Benton sponsored the proposal, presenting it as a public safety issue. They argued their proposal will free up police, who have contended with staffing shortages in recent years, to focus on more serious crimes.

“At the end of the day, our police officers have more important things to do” Davis said. The measure also has backing from the city’s police union.

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The bill still must receive final approval from Democratic Mayor Tim Keller. Last year, he replaced Richard Berry, a Republican who had vetoed a similar proposal in 2015.

If passed this year, Albuquerque would join a growing list of U.S. municipalities that have enacted similar measures.

“This would put Albuquerque in line with a third of the population” in the United States, said Emily Kaltenbach, the state director in New Mexico for the Drug Policy Alliance, which has advocated nationally for easing drug sentencing laws.

Santa Fe already has a similar measure decriminalizing cannabis in place.

Under Albuquerque’s current criminal code, police can issue $50 fines to first-time offenders possessing an ounce or less of marijuana. Authorities also can jail first-time offenders for a maximum of 15 days, though such instances appear to be rare. The fines and penalties increase with a second violation.

While a petty misdemeanor, a cannabis possession charge can potentially hinder a person’s chances at securing housing or student loans, Kaltenbach said.

The City Council approved the measure on a 5-4 vote. Councilwoman Cynthia Borrego was among those who voted against it.

“There’s no empirical evidence that shows the relationship between a reduction in crime and decriminalizing marijuana,” she said.

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