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Governor of New Mexico Decriminalizes Marijuana Possession

A legalization bill failed to pass — but residents will no longer fear jail time for pot possession.

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Governor of New Mexico Decriminalizes Marijuana Possession
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One month after policymakers failed to pass a bill legalizing marijuana in the state, New Mexico has signed into effect a law to decriminalize cannabis. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham authorized the legislation, which will reduce the punishment for possession of up to a half ounce of weed from up to 15 days in jail to a fee of $50.

The Senate passed SB 323 in March by a vote of 30 to 8. The House took its time deliberating over some Judiciary Committee amendments, eventually approving the legislation mere hours before its session concluded.

“New Mexico just took an important step forward toward more humane marijuana policies,” Karen O’Keefe, state policies director for the Marijuana Policy Project told Forbes. “It will no longer brand cannabis consumers criminals or threaten them with jail time for simple possession. But it’s a shame that only one piece of the war on marijuana is ending in New Mexico this year.”

“This bill ensures that until we do legalize, people will not have their lives destroyed by being criminalized and stigmatized for possessing marijuana for their personal use,” wrote Drug Policy Alliance New Mexico director Emily Kaltenbach in a press release. Subsequent marijuana offenses may still be punished with jail time under Senate Bill 323.

The bill, which will go into effect on July 1, makes New Mexico the 24th state to take jail time off the menu for small time marijuana possession charges. Decriminalization is a step forward in the absence of farther-reaching legalization, but it has not been found to entirely correct racially biased policing. Studies in states across the country have found that post-decriminalization, Blacks and Latinos are still more likely to be arrested than white cannabis users, even given similar rates of use among racial populations.

Regulation would have taken on a unique profile in New Mexico — the legalization bill that was passed by the House on March 8 before stalling in the Senate’s Finance Committee would have placed marijuana sales largely in state-run retail outlets. In most states that have legalized cannabis, private companies take on the role of marijuana vendor.

Legalization, once the purview of Democrats in the state, has recently become a bi-partisan issue as more and more Republicans come to see marijuana regulation as an inevitable political outcome. The legalization measure that passed in the House was the product of negotiations between both sides of the aisle, a “compromised floor substitute,” as it was introduced by Democratic Representative Javier Martinez.  

For now, the state’s residents can at least count on avoiding jail time if they are caught with small amounts of pot. That in turn will reduce the financial burden on the state’s legal system, says a fiscal report put together by the government; “Workloads could be lessened by reducing the charges of possession of marijuana up to one-half ounce and use or possession of drug paraphernalia to penalty assessments.” Estimates put the money that would be gained in tax on recreational marijuana in the state at $40 to $50 million annually.

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