Within recent years, adult use of recreational marijuana has been legalized in 16 states, and the use of medical marijuana has been legalized in 19 states. Despite the sweeping shift of the drug’s legal status, some states have yet to expunge the records of people who have been convicted of marijuana charges.
Racial disparity plays a big role in marijuana-related arrests. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Black people in New Mexico are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people. Within Bernalillo County alone, a Black person was almost twice as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in 2018. This is compared to the nationwide average, where Black people are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, the highest disparity from 2010 - 2018.
According to Bernadine Hernandez, an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico and a member of both the Prison Divest New Mexico Coalition and the Fronteristxs Collective, private prisons thrive within New Mexico. Inmates, including people with marijuana charges, are most likely to be held at a private prison.
“Private prisons are not part of the state or federal government so private prisons do not have to report to any type of government officials to keep them in check, there’s no checks and balances. The conditions in private prisons are really bad and they don’t have to report to anybody,” Hernandez said. “(The prisons are) also making money off of people who are incarcerated in New Mexico, which always happen to be BIPOC, particularly Indigenous and Latinx people. That shouldn’t be happening — you shouldn’t be making money off of incarcerated people.”
In 2019, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill that decriminalized the possession of marijuana up to half an ounce. According to Shad DeFoor, a local Albuquerque resident who was incarcerated for a year for vehicular homicide when he was 18 years old, this didn’t change things for the people who were arrested for marijuana charges before 2019. Some of those people are still serving time to this day.
“During my time incarcerated, I obviously met a lot of people that were locked up for (drug charges involving marijuana). Obviously, in prison, it wasn’t just petty possession anymore,” DeFoor said. “It was usually distribution or some heavy possession, over a couple pounds type thing. I saw people doing years for it, nine or 10 years — longer than the murderers.”
In 2007, a bill passed in New Mexico that legalized the use of medical marijuana. Despite this, incarcerated people with marijuana charges still had to wait out their sentences even knowing marijuana has recognized medicinal uses.
DeFoor said dispensary owners usually own more plants than is legally allowed, but that it’s usually overlooked because their business is generating money for the state.
“There’s people I have seen that are doing nine or 10 years for distribution of cannabis — they didn’t get those same breaks (dispensaries did) with the judicial system or how the legislation reads out,” DeFoor said.
“Despite similar drug use rates, people of color are stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted and eventually incarcerated at 13 times the rates of whites,” the Drug Policy Alliance reports.
On April 12, Lujan Grisham legalized recreational cannabis use in New Mexico. Along with this new law comes the possibility of expungement of low-level cannabis related convictions from the records of 150,000 people who are currently incarcerated. DeFoor believes this is a step in the right direction.
“(Expungement) is definitely a necessary step. I followed the legislation closely with the expungement and how it doesn’t keep you out of participating in the future of cannabis,” DeFoor said. “It is righting the wrong as best as it can at this point in the game.”
Hannah John is a freelance reporter at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @yesitshannahj