BY JAY SMOKER
To Hear Testimony On Decreasing Penalties for Adults who Possess Small Amounts of Marijuana
DPA: Reducing Marijuana Penalties will Improve Lives, Save Taxpayer’s Dollars and Significantly Reduce the Burden on Law Enforcement Resources
Tomorrow, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) will be testifying to the Interim Legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee about the importance of decreasing penalties for adults who possess small amounts of marijuana. DPA is scheduled to present at 10 am in Room 307 at the State Capitol in Santa Fe.
The proposed legislation reduces the penalty structure for possession of up to 1 ounce to no fine or penalty and 2 ounces to 8 ounces from a misdemeanor to a fine. Currently, in New Mexico, possession of up to 8 ounces of marijuana is a misdemeanor that can include large fines and jail time. “Although misdemeanors seem relatively insignificant they are anything but minor,” stated Dan Abrahamson, Director of Legal Affairs for Drug Policy Alliance. “A misdemeanor can ruin a person’s job prospects, affect child custody, access to health care, and have hefty fines that low-income families in New Mexico cannot afford to pay.”
This proposed legislation is badly needed. There is a common misconception that New Mexico’s local law enforcement agencies do not arrest people for marijuana possession. The data tell a wholly different story. According to the Marijuana Arrest Research Program’s analysis of the Uniform Crime Reporting data, in 2010 there were 3,277 marijuana possession arrests for a rate of 159 per 100,000. Marijuana possession arrest rates vary widely throughout the State, based in part on marijuana use levels as well as local enforcement policies. Dona Ana, Chaves, Sandoval, San Juan and Bernalillo counties led the State in the number or arrests for marijuana possession, collectively representing 63% of the State’s total number of possession arrests (2,055 arrests). Dona Ana County alone represented 28% of the State’s total (901 possession arrests).
“The proposal to reduce adult marijuana possession penalties is a step in the right direction by allowing police to issue a ticket rather than arrest someone for possessing tiny amounts of marijuana,” stated Emily Kaltenbach, the New Mexico State Director of Drug Policy Alliance. “This legislation is pragmatic – we are confident that if signed into law it will improve lives, save taxpayer’s dollars and significantly reduce the burden on law enforcement resources.”
Around the country, similar change is afoot. There is growing momentum to reduce penalties for small amounts of marijuana, with California reducing penalties in 2010, Connecticut in 2011 and Rhode Island earlier this year. In the most recent November elections, both Colorado and Washington approved initiatives to legalize and regulate the recreational use and commercial production of marijuana.
This proposed legislation represents yet another important step in the growing movement to stop treating people who consume drugs as criminals in need of incarceration. Its principal impacts are reducing arrests of drug users, especially those who are young and/or members of minority groups; allowing police to focus their precious and limited resources on more serious crimes; reducing criminal justice system costs; and better enabling individuals, families, communities and local governments to deal with drug misuse as a health rather than criminal issue.
In recent years American attitudes have shifted dramatically on this issue: For the first time, support for marijuana legalization topped 50% nationwide last year, according to Gallup, and a recent Mason-Dixon poll found that 67% of Republicans believe that the federal government should get out of the way and let states enforce their own medical marijuana laws, rather than prosecute people complying with state law. As marijuana reform becomes a mainstream position, political candidates and elected officials will find it is less and less of a political third rail.
These arrests impose significant costs on individual, families and communities, as well as on police, prosecutors, courts and taxpayers generally. Furthermore, these arrests provide few if any benefits. As with the impact of most bad drug policies, the people bearing the brunt of the problem are poor, not white, and young.
The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is the nation’s leading organization of people who believe the war on drugs is doing more harm than good. DPA fights for drug policies based on science, compassion, health and human rights.