I spent last week idly chewing pen caps and trying not to think about cigarettes. At the April 2 meeting of the Albuquerque City Council, a measure to decriminalize the possession of an ounce or less of cannabis—sponsored by Councilor Pat Davis and Councilor Isaac Benton—passed by a hair. It was exciting, but in a gross and embarrassing way. A good friend of mine likes to tell me that the people of ABQ are about two decades behind the rest of the country. I'd say a 5-4 win for a decriminalization bill means we can drop it to about five years instead. I guess I should be celebrating.
Of course it means that four of our illustrious City Councilors—
Borrego, the only Democrat to vote against the bill (despite the unofficial stance recently taken by the New Mexico Democratic Party at the pre-primary convention last month in support of federal cannabis legalization) reportedly said she was doing so because she was worried that street cannabis could potentially be laced with other, more dangerous drugs—a fair argument in support of legalization and regulation, but hardly relevant in the current context. After all, we're talking about altering how we punish offenders, not looking for ways to make illegal cannabis more available. Which really makes me wonder what ludicrous rationalizations the other three Council members who voted “no” were nursing.
These are people we elected, remember? But I've been told to count my heaps of blessings and look for silver linings many, many times before. Maybe I'm overreacting.
So this was a couple weeks ago. After passing through the Council, the measure crossed Mayor Tim Keller's desk. As you might have noticed, I've been a fan of Keller's from his time as state auditor. There aren't many things in the world that get me more excited than seeing corrupt, power-mad shits get what's coming to them. And I've had the distinctly physical pleasure of reading about the many times Keller did just that over the last few years. (I must confess I was kind of bummed when I realized he wasn't going to keep playing Batman for the state, but there again: Be happy with what you have, I suppose.)
Which I believe is why I developed a harping sense of paranoia over the last week. When I first heard Keller was the final hurdle between us and decriminalization, I knew we were in the clear. “Of course he'll sign it,” I said. A few days later, I was starting to get the nervous tics. “I'm sure he'll sign it, right?” After a week I was already writing a dear John letter and considering moving to back to Texas—where a prison is a prison, and no one's even pretending to be progressive.
But the knot in my stomach and the tooth powder in my mouth was wasted. Last Thursday, Keller put pen to paper and made it official. Maybe the Councilors who voted against it will move away to some place where the population enjoys having their friends and family get screwed by their leaders (you kids would absolutely love it in Texas).
Yes. And here are the new rules: First of all, it's still a criminal offense under state law to possess cannabis if you aren't a patient enrolled in the medical program. If any officer chooses to do so, they can pursue those charges. That being said, the city's criminal ordinance will be replaced with a civil one carrying only a $25 fine. It's still a misdemeanor offense. Previously, getting caught with an ounce or less of cannabis would land a $50 fine and up to 15 days in jail the first time. Repeat offenses could get a $500 fine and up to 90 days in jail. (Insanely, those weren't even close to the worst cannabis laws out there. South Dakota has a state law that can fine a person up to $2,000 for the same amount and throw them in jail for up to a year!)
It's completely wild for someone who grew up in the heyday of D.A.R.E (which I'm always surprised to find still exists) and “Just Say No” to read this statement from the mayor: “Removing the criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana will free up precious resources for law enforcement, who have plenty on their plate already. We’re facing real challenges in Albuquerque and this is a step in the right direction to allow our officers the flexibility to better prioritize their time tackling violent crime and property crime in our city.” Police Chief Michael Geier also showed his support of the legislation, saying it would allow officers to focus on “violent crime, property crime and drunk driving.”
My nasty cynicism aside, this is a real step forward for us as a city. The logistical problems of defending bad laws are obviously an issue for a police force so desperately short-staffed. The real victory was a moral one, though. The mayor, police and most of our City Council just publicly took a step toward a more rational, caring society. That place is looking less and less like a fever dream every day.