A draft bill to lessen penalties for marijuana possession in New Mexico received a mixed reception during a contentious legislative committee hearing.
Emily Kaltenbach of the Drug Policy Alliance advocated for the bill. She said police spend too much time on low-level possession cases, and that adults caught with small amounts of marijuana land in jail to the detriment of their families.
Fifteen states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, and Kaltenbach said New Mexico should join them.
Her assessment came under attack from Republicans on the Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee, especially Rep. Dennis Kintigh of Roswell.
A retired FBI agent, Kintigh, challenged Kaltenbach to name five people who are in state prisons solely for marijuana possession. He said nearly everyone incarcerated for marijuana possession had committed other crimes or violated the terms of their probation.
But Kaltenbach said those convicted of possession more likely are in county jails, not state prisons.
She cited statistics showing that more than a third of the state's drug arrests are for marijuana, a significant use of police resources.
Sen. Sander Rue, R-Albuquerque, said he was not swayed by her arguments. Rue said that, even if she is right,
Republicans and one Democrat, Sen. Peter Wirth of Santa Fe, also criticized the bill for making no mention of what constitutes marijuana trafficking.
For those 18 or older, the proposal calls for no penalty or fine for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. Possession of up to four ounces would bring a civil penalty and a fine of up to $100.
The bill would criminalize possession of larger amounts, establishing a misdemeanor and fine of up to $1,000 for possession of eight ounces or more of marijuana.
Kintigh said this would create a system in which someone caught with hundreds of pounds of marijuana would be subject only to a misdemeanor charge. Wirth said he had similar concerns because the bill avoided any definition of marijuana distribution.
Other Democrats said they liked the bill.
Rep. Eliseo Alcon, D-Milan, said opponents of the proposal were overwrought.
Speaking of conservatives, Alcon, right, said: "Part of our world is opposed to anything that might make someone happy."
A Vietnam veteran, Alcon said he knew many fellow servicemen who drank alcohol or smoked marijuana after coming home. Marijuana did no harm, he said, defining "a platoon of potheads" as peaceable, but drinkers as being prone to violence.
Sen. Richard Martinez, D-Espanola, said he agreed with the bill and was grateful that Kintigh would not be around in January to undercut it. Kintigh lost his bid for reelection to the House of Representatives and leaves office at year's end.
Even if a bill to reduce penalties for marijuana possession cleared the Legislature, it still might not become law.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, a former prosecutor, could have the last word in the form of a veto.
The governor's press secretary, Scott Darnell, said Martinez would not support the bill.
"As a prosecutor and district attorney, the governor has seen firsthand how illegal drug use destroys lives, especially among our youth, and she opposes drug legalization or decriminalization efforts," Darnell said.