New Mexico considers lighter punishment for drug possession

January 30, 2019
State Sen. Jacob R. Candelaria speaks on March 10, 2015, during a Senate Public Affairs Committee meeting at the state Capital in Santa Fe, N.M. The measure from Candelaria and Rep. Andrea Romero, both Democrats, would reclassify the possession of drugs including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and various psychedelics when there is no intent to distribute or traffic. (Luke E. Montavon/Santa Fe New Mexican via AP, File)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Legislature will consider reducing drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors to decrease incarceration costs and more effectively treat addiction, under a bill introduced Tuesday.

The measure from Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque and Rep. Andrea Romero of Santa Fe, both Democrats, would reclassify the possession of drugs, including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines and various psychedelics, when there is no intent to distribute or traffic.

Marijuana possession already is classified as a misdemeanor on first offense for quantities up to one ounce. That would not change under the bill.

The proposal follows reforms to reclassify simple drug possession as a misdemeanor in Oklahoma, Utah, Connecticut, Alaska and California.

Candelaria said felony penalties for possession of trace amounts of illegal drugs are unnecessarily dividing families and preventing access to gainful employment and public housing.

“A felony conviction leads to what we call ‘civil death,’” he said. “You are ostracized from the community, you have a difficult time accessing any public support including public housing, the doors to higher education are shut closed to you almost forever.”

At the same time, the state says to do better and break addiction, he added.

The bill as currently written does not tie misdemeanor charges to specific drug quantities.

New Mexico Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur said prosecutors and police would retain discretion over the severity of drug charges based on individual circumstances and whether there is evidence of drug dealing.

Without the changes, he said tiny quantities of drugs — such as the residue in a drug pipe — can trigger felony convictions and jail time.

“This bill is really part of a movement toward treating the use of substances in a different and more effective way,” Baur said. “It’s a movement across the country.”

The Democrat-led Legislature is taking up an array of initiatives on drug policy and criminal justice with the recent arrival of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The bill to reclassify drug possession does not address past convictions.

A separate bill this year would set policies for the expungement of criminal records and allocate funding for programs that divert nonviolent drug users to treatment programs rather than jail.

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