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Albuquerque City Council Votes to Decriminalize Low-Level Cannabis Possession

Mayor Tim Keller is unsure of whether he will approve the ordinance, however.

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On Monday, the City Council of Albuquerque, New Mexico voted to approve a new ordinance which would decriminalize low-level cannabis possession. The measure, proposed by city council members Pat Davis and Isaac Benton last month, would make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil infraction punishable with a $25 fine. Under current city law, a first-time offender can face a $50 fine and 15 days in jail, but the new legislation would remove the option of jail time entirely.

The city council approved the ordinance Monday after a day of hearing testimony from citizens in favor of the measure. But before the ordinance can go into effect, it must be approved by Mayor Tim Keller, who has said he wants to do more research before he will sign it. Keller did note that local law enforcement supports the policy, however. "This is a way for our officers to focus on high-priority crimes instead of on issues like low amounts of marijuana; it's something that might help law enforcement,” he said to KOB 4 Eyewitness News.

Not only would the ordinance potentially free up resources for local police, it could help individuals who want to use cannabis for medical reasons. Jason Barker of the advocacy group LECUA Patient's Coalition of New Mexico said that there are a number of city residents who are using pot illegally because their medical conditions are not covered by the state's strict medical marijuana laws. "That would alleviate a great deal of stress for individuals with developmental disabilities," Barker said to KUNM Radio. "They’ve got some serious handicaps and they’re getting benefits from cannabis."

Although cannabis reform has traditionally been a hard sell for more conservative states, a number of larger cities are gradually beginning to enact decriminalization ordinances. Two years ago, New Orleans passed an ordinance decriminalizing low-level cannabis possession similar in scope to the one proposed in Albuquerque. Between 2011 and 2014, minor cannabis possession accounted for 72% of all marijuana-related arrests by New Orleans police, but by 2016, arrests plummeted to just 1%. Other southern cities, like Atlanta, Memphis, and Nashville, have also passed decriminalization measures in recent years.

Full recreational cannabis may even be on the cards for New Mexico, even though the majority of the state's Republican legislators oppose the idea. Several advocacy groups are currently petitioning for a public ballot measure which would allow voters to decide on legal cannabis for themselves. It could indeed have a chance at success, as around 60% of the state's voters have expressed support for legalization in recent polls.

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