Santa Fe, New Mexico — The Midwestern state of New Mexico is poised to become the 24th to decriminalize cannabis.
Local Albuquerque station KRQE reports that “Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed legislation last week that will decrease penalties for cannabis possession from a criminal to civil violation. Individuals caught with less than half an ounce of cannabis will face a $50 fine, instead of jail or prison time. Reduced penalties for being caught with drug paraphernalia (accessories) will also go into effect. The new law pertaining to cannabis reform goes into effect on July 1, 2019.”
Marijuana decriminalization is not the same as full legalization. Under decriminalization, criminal penalties linked to marijuana, such as jail time for minimal possession is no longer a factor. However, civil penalties such as a fine remain in place. Selling marijuana remains against the law.
With full legalization, civil and criminal penalties for marijuana possession are no longer a factor, and the sale of cannabis is typically allowed within licensed dispensaries. Illicit sales of cannabis would remain illegal.
Some people favor decriminalization in lieu of legalization because it reduces the drain on law enforcement’s time, energy and resources when pursuing low-level cannabis crimes. Whereas instating fines for cannabis possession generates income for the state’s coffers, which in theory can then be allocated to pursue more detrimental criminal activity or support state infrastructure.
Opponents of legalization, such as Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) fear that Big Tobacco backed cannabis companies that are now known as Big Cannabis will target unwitting children, creating the same cycle of addiction and death-for-profit among younger generations as Big Tobacco.
While cannabis is not known to be as harmfully habit-forming as cigarettes or opioids, the fear is if cannabis is legalized, it is only a matter of time before addictive additives and chemicals are included in mass-produced marijuana.
While some dismiss this type of fear-mongering as “reefer madness,” in reference to the 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film that showed teenagers losing their minds on jazz cabbage, it is enough of a reality to have prompted former FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb to want to ban discreet e-cigarette devices such as JUUL altogether, because they overwhelmingly appeal to children.
While comparing tobacco to cannabis companies may seem like mixing apples and oranges, Big Tobacco is already deep in the Cannabis space.
For example, Altria which manufactures Marlboro, has a 35% stake in Juul and a 1.8 billion investment in Canadian marijuana grower, Cronos Group. The Juul technology itself spun out of Pax Labs. The Pax 2 can vape loose leaf tobacco or cannabis.
Meanwhile, the concern for advocates of adult use marijuana legalization is that decriminalization keeps adult use marijuana sales illegal, which will continue to push users into the illicit market to obtain the plant. Unregulated marijuana from the illicit market may contain cancer-causing pesticides, or in the case of smuggled hashish (cannabis resin) in Spain, actual feces.
The fines, while less austere than arrests or prison time, can still be problematic, considering in other states where possession is decriminalized, cannabis is still often used by police as a catalyst for “broken windows policing” and racial profiling.
Gov. Grisham supports legalization, but the Cannabis Regulation Act House Bill 356, which would have legalized cannabis and allowed for state-run dispensaries, did not pass the state’s legislature this year.
The battle to expand New Mexico’s medical marijuana program to include Opioid Use Disorder and for full legalization in New Mexico is not over. For now, decriminalization, seen by advocates as a step forward, will have to suffice.