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A fine, not a crime: What marijuana decriminalization means in New Mexico

This summer, New Mexico decriminalized marijuana in small amounts: What does that mean for the courts, the citizens and the criminal justice system?

The new law

This spring, the New Mexico Legislature failed to legalize marijuana, but legislators did decriminalize small amounts of the drug.

According to the law, New Mexicans caught possessing less than half an ounce of marijuana will be subjected to a $50 fine, not prison time.

Young New Mexicans and drug offenses

“This is a positive development,” said Kris Knutson, the district defender for the public defender’s office in Las Cruces. “Our workload has been reduced of course, because it used to be a jailable offense, but now it’s a civil penalty,” Knutson said.

Knutson said a low-level drug offense can jeopardize a young person’s future.

“You’ll get denied public housing, you’ll get denied student loans, you’ll have a criminal record… All those things are a black mark on you when you’re a young person.”

According to the United States Office on Drugs and Crime, more than half of Americans in their late teens and early twenties have tried cannabis at least once.

“It is a step in the right direction,” Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham told ABC-7. “We don’t want young people in our jails or correction systems.”

People of color incarcerated for drug crimes

“Historically, people of color and low-income individuals have been targeted for marijuana possession,” Knutson said.

In New Mexico’s most populated county, Bernallio, a 2017 report by the American Civil Liberties Union found Hispanic men were more than twice as likely to be jailed for drug offenses than white men.

Law enforcement’s understanding of the new law

“In terms of our patrol procedures, nothing has really changed,” said Doña Ana County Sheriff Kim Stewart.

If her deputies find marijuana in a felony amount, Sheriff Stewart said her deputies are required to call Metro Narcotics – the nation’s oldest multi-agency drug task force – according to Commander Bobby Holden.

Before the new law went into effect, Sheriff Stewart said state law allowed law enforcement to either arrest someone or simply charge them with a misdemeanor if they had eight ounces or less.

“With small amounts before, we were citing and releasing anyway. It’s not there has been a great upheaval in the process.”

What’s next?

“It’s inevitable we’re moving toward more full scale recognition of recreational use among adults,” said Sheriff Stewart.

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has formed a task force that will consider the risks and rewards of legalizing the drug for recreational use in New Mexico. As part of the task force, Sheriff Stewart represents New Mexico law enforcement.

“It’s not about whether I support it or not, it’s about having a place at the table,” she told ABC-7.

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