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Monday, December 22, 2014

City Council votes in favor of adding pot penalties to ballot

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By Diana Cervantes / New Mexico Daily Lobo

Councilors Klarissa J. Peña and Rey Garduño discuss the agenda during the Albuquerque City Council meeting on Monday. Garduño’s resolution to pass a motion to have lower marijuana penalties put on the ballot for the next elections passed by a 5-4 vote.

Albuquerque voters might have the chance to vote on whether or not marijuana penalties should be lessened.

Late Monday evening The Albuquerque City Council voted 5-4 in favor of allowing a measure that will reduce marijuana penalties to be put on the ballot in November.

This initiative seeks to reduce those penalties in the Albuquerque area to a civic penalty of $25 for anyone found in possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, regardless of prior transgressions for the same offense.

According to current statutes, penalties for a first offense include a fine between $50 and $100, up to 15 days in jail, or both. A second or subsequent offense carries a fine of between $100 and $1,000, up to one year in jail, or both and any amount up to one ounce.

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry now has 10 days to sign the resolution, take no action, or veto it.

The matter went before the council following a failed petition initiated by Progress Now NM, a group working closely with the Drug Policy Alliance.

Councilman Rey Garduño introduced the resolution, which was based on the petition.

Garduño said the ballot initiative is a significant step in reanalyzing current drug policy to develop more socially responsible laws when it comes to marijuana. He and his team are currently asking for signatures in support of his new resolution.

“I think it’s a very important time in the discussion of marijuana,” Garduño said. “My resolution is really asking the council to put it on the ballot so that there is a popular initiative and folks can vote on it.”

Marsha Garcia, communications director at Progress Now NM, said its goal with the original petition was solely to reduce the penalties for possessing an ounce or less of marijuana for personal use in Albuquerque. However, she said they hope this measure will serve as the first step towards statewide decriminalization in the future.

“We don’t think an adult with a small amount of marijuana for personal use should be considered a criminal,” Garcia said. “Reforms are being done statewide and at the municipal level across the country, and we think Albuquerque should start taking steps towards this future.”

The 60-day campaign to collect the signatures was met with widespread support —gathering over 16,000 signatures — from Albuquerque citizens who would like to see the marijuana question put to a vote once and for all.

However, Garcia said their efforts have not gone without challenges. When the petition was chartered back in May, organizers were told a minimum of 11,203 valid signatures were required for the petition in order to proceed.

Two days after the petition was submitted, Councilman Don Harris – who is opposed to the petition, asked the city attorney to reanalyze the law written in the charter and revealed a mathematical miscalculation on behalf of the city attorney’s office as to how many signatures were required, setting the actual number at 14,218 — the number comes from a percentage of votes from previous mayoral elections, she said.

“The original number that was given to us was certified by the city attorney,” Garcia said. “Them coming back and changing that number two days after the process is over seems a little fishy.”

Garduño agreed with Garcia, and was very disappointed in the way the petition had been handled by the city, he said.

On Aug. 4, Garduño joined the movement and announced his resolution in support of the initiative in response to the actions taken by the opposition.

“You can’t legally change the laws or rules after they have already been established, and there are people operating on those rules,” Garduno said.

Rachel Maestas, volunteer coordinator at Progress Now NM and UNM Alumni, said despite the set-backs, they believe the measure will ultimately be accepted by Albuquerque voters. Maestas was very active in collecting signatures for their petition and is confident they exceeded the original number written in their charter, she said.

“For the most part people were really supportive,” Maestas said. “Many, even if they didn’t agree with it, signed just so that it could be put up for a vote.”

The Albuquerque City Council passing Garduño’s measure comes just one day after the Santa Fe City Clerk announced that a similar petition has passed in Santa Fe.

Timeline of events

May 27 – Progress Now NM, working closely with the Drug Policy Alliance, charters a petition to reduce marijuana penalties in the Albuquerque area.

July 28 – Following a 60-day period, Progress Now NM submits more than 16,000 signatures in support of the ballot initiative.

July 30 – Councilman Don Harris discovers a mistake in the original number, questions the validity of the petition. Petition supporters oppose his move.

Aug. 4 – Councilman Rey Garduño joins initiative in response to opposition – announces resolution to see marijuana question on ballot in November elections.

Aug. 19 – City Council votes 5-4 in favor of Garduño’s resolution, sent to mayor for further action.

Tomas Lujan is the assistant editor at the culture desk for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at cultureassistant@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @TomasVLujan.