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Friday, December 19, 2014

Voting on pot penalties in Berry's hands

Mayor Richard Berry must decide today whether he will give residents the chance to to vote on decriminalizing marijuana in Albuquerque.

On Aug. 18 the city council passed an election resolution of five ballot initiatives, including a measure that would decrease penalties for personal possession of marijuana under an ounce to a $25 civil fine.

If Berry vetoes the resolution, all five initiatives would not be brought to voters on the upcoming November ballot.

“Obviously we would be disappointed if the mayor does that because, in our minds, he would be going against the will of the people who want to vote on this,” said Alex Curtas, research and special projects director for Progress Now NM.

Progress Now along with the Drug Policy Alliance, initiated petitions in Albuquerque and Santa Fe in order to get the question on both cities’ November ballots, gathering 16,000 signatures in Albuquerque and more than 11,000 in Santa Fe, Curtas said.

On Wednesday night the Santa Fe City Council approved the ordinance themselves instead of putting the issue before voters, becoming the first city in the state to decriminalize recreational marijuana use, Curtas said.

“We were ecstatic last night when we saw that this happened,” Curtas said Thursday. “That excitement is tempered with a little bit of disappointment, because we would’ve liked to have seen Santa Fe voters vote on this at the ballot. But it’s a great policy either way, and it made history.”

State Senator Jerry Ortiz y Pino has fought for years to fully legalize marijuana statewide, and he said he agrees that the new ordinance in Santa Fe is a big step in the right direction.

“I don’t think there is any doubt that the trajectory of history is in favor of gradual elimination of penalties for smoking marijuana. [The war on drugs] hasn’t worked, it’s more available now than it ever was, and it’s ruined a lot of lives,” Ortiz y Pino said.

However, Curtas said that the results in Santa Fe will most likely not affect Berry’s decision, and Ortiz y Pino said he was not hopeful that Albuquerque voters would get the chance to vote on the issue.

“I would be amazed if [Berry] doesn’t veto it, I’m almost certain he will,” Ortiz y Pino said.

The mayor’s chief of staff, Gilbert Montano, said Berry is seriously considering vetoing the marijuana ordinance.

Ortiz y Pino said the council’s decision to include the marijuana measure in the election resolution was a strategy to force Berry’s hand, since he supported two of the five measures and could only approve or veto the entire package.

However, Ortiz y Pino said the strategy may have been a mistake, and might backfire.

Curtas said the will of the people has been made clear, and that Berry should let them vote on the issue regardless of how he feels.

“If the mayor is going to veto it before it ever makes it to the ballot because he has a personal opinion against it; that just seems like he’s circumventing the democratic process. He should let people vote on this issue because they’ve demonstrated that they want to vote on it and he has the power to make sure that they can,” Curtas said.

Last legislative session, Ortiz y Pino introduced a constitutional amendment that would have legalized the production, sale and use of marijuana in New Mexico, allowing it to be taxed and regulated.

The amendment was stopped in committee and never made it to the floor of the Congress.

He said he plans to reintroduce the amendment this upcoming session.

“There is no way that the wheels of history can be turned back now. More and more people recognize that this is really a foolish way to try to deal with the problems attributed to marijuana, and that in fact marijuana may not even be the problem,” Ortiz y Pino said.
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Jonathan Baca is a news editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at news@dailylobo.com, or on Twitter @JonGabrielB._