ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – It’s been a year since the City of Albuquerque decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Instead of arrests, police can now issue $25 tickets to people caught with an ounce or less of pot.
So how many people are getting those tickets? As KRQE News 13 found on Special Assignment, the answer may surprise you.
“Some of these cases are going back several years,” explained Commander Chris George, of the Albuquerque Police Department. He’s referring to evidence for pending drug cases which are kept inside the narcotics vault at APD’s crime lab.
“We have every type of narcotic in here,” George explained.
There are hard drugs, like meth and heroin, evidence bags full of pills, and synthetic drugs. When asked what they have the most of, Commander George responded, “Pound-wise, marijuana.”
Marijuana from both police and sheriff’s department cases line the aisle there. Over the course of 22 years with APD, Commander George said he’s noticed, “The technology in cannabis production has increased, yielding in a greater THC content, which our chemists do all the testing on upstairs.”
Attitudes have also changed toward marijuana. Last year, city councilors passed legislation to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana in the City of Albuquerque.
Mayor Keller signed off on the ordinance, which gives APD officers the option to hand out $25 citations, instead of criminally charging someone found with an ounce or less of marijuana on them.
“I think our experience here in Albuquerque has shown us that you can do something like this and give cops the ability to focus on bigger things, and the community can support you for that,” said Albuquerque City Councilor, Pat Davis, who co-sponsored the bill along with City Councilor Isaac Benton.
It’s no secret violent crime, burglaries, and car theft are major concerns in Albuquerque. But police say those crimes are also tied to the city’s drug problem.
“We know that a lot of our property crime offenders are drug addicts who are stealing to support that drug habit,” explained Deputy Chief Harold Medina, of the Albuquerque Police Department. “And that’s where the Albuquerque Police Department wants to put focuses, on those higher level drugs.”
Deputy Chief Medina didn’t place marijuana into that category. Since the ordinance to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana went into effect, KRQE News 13 asked APD how many times its officers have issued those $25 citations. The answer is zero.
“Yeah, I’m a little surprised officers haven’t used it more, but it was also sort of the point,” Davis told KRQE News 13. Seeing zero citations is a good thing, he said.
“Now, police officers are leading the way and telling us to decriminalize some of these small offenses that take up a lot of time, with records that follow people for their entire lives,” Davis added.
Deputy Chief Medina said APD discourages officers from citing people for small amounts of marijuana—and between staff shortages and the city’s crime problem, marijuana just isn’t a burning issue.
“I think police discretion and knowing where we want our resources and what priorities they have is key to this,” Medina said.
Police still have discretion to charge someone with marijuana possession for small amounts under state or federal law. APD is still doing that, they say mainly with suspected drug dealers.
“That young individual who is selling narcotics—we weren’t gonna give them a citation to begin with,” Medina told KRQE News 13. “We’re gonna arrest them and we’re gonna process them for distribution of a controlled substance.”
KRQE News 13 asked APD to run a search to see how many times its officers used state law to criminally charge someone for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana in the year since Albuquerque’s new ordinance passed. The answer was 33 times.
“We don’t want every single low-level first-time offender going to courts over a case,” Medina said.
With a shift in APD’s priorities, Medina wants officers to work more on community policing.
“If I had to make a decision that an officer spend one hour on a simple marijuana case and preparing the paperwork, and writing the report and tagging it into evidence, or one hour walking down the business district, introducing themselves to the business owners, I’ll take the second option every time.”Deputy Chief Medina
More people are using medical marijuana in New Mexico than ever before, and readily show their cards to officers. The Department of Health expects more than 80,000 cannabis patients in the state by year’s end.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham recently signed a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana under state law. It states anyone caught with less than half-an-ounce is subject to a $50 fine instead of a criminal charge.
The new law does not however, legalize the recreational use of marijuana in New Mexico. It goes into effect on July 1, 2019.