January 30, 2019

Bill would reduce simple drug possession penalty

You’re a heroin addict and you’ve just been busted for having a small stash of heroin, which leads to a felony conviction. When you get out of jail, your probation and parole officer says you’ve got to find a job, stay out of trouble and pick yourself up by your bootstraps.

But when you go looking for a job you find nobody will hire a convicted felon. Likewise, your felony conviction prevents you from getting public housing or other forms of public assistance.

State Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, who is co-sponsoring a bill to reduce the penalty for simple possession of an illegal drug, said Tuesday a felony conviction amounts to “civil death.” At a Capitol news conference he asked “How do you pick yourself up by your bootstraps if someone’s taken your boots?”

Mere possession of any illegal drug — heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine — would no longer be a felony under Senate Bill 408, introduced in the New Mexico Legislature by Candelaria and Rep. Andrea Romero, D-Santa Fe. The crime would become a misdemeanor.

“This is one of the most important public safety conversations that we’re going to have this legislative session,” Candelaria said.

He said the state needs to stop treating drug addiction as criminal justice issue: “Addiction is a medical problem. We just need to change the paradigm in New Mexico.”

Romero said, “The evidence shows that more punitive criminal justice responses, such as felony convictions, are not effective.”

Since 2014, five states have reclassified simple drug possession from felonies to misdemeanors. These include politically conservative strongholds such as Utah, Alaska and Oklahoma, where 58 percent of state voters approved a ballot measure in 2016.

Candelaria and Romero — as well as other supporters at Tuesday’s news conference — said it’s way past time for New Mexico to join that club.

There is no threshold that would make possessing a certain drug a felony, Candelaria said.

But that doesn’t mean that the punishment for a gram of heroin or cocaine and a pound of those substances would be the same.

Former Santa Fe District Attorney Angela “Spence” Pacheco explained that even if SB 408 becomes law, “Typically a pound or any large amount would be charged as `possession with intent to distribute.’ That law will still be on the books.”

The current law on simple possession, which Candelaria’s bill would amend, does not distinguish between large and small amounts, she pointed out. “One tiny little speck of cocaine is a felony, [according to current state law],” said Pacheco, who sits on the national board of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group that is pushing this bill and other drug-law reform legislation.

Ben Baur, the state’s chief public defender, said prosecutors would retain discretion over the severity of charges.

Those convicted of misdemeanor drug possession under the bill hardly would be getting off scot free. The bill calls for a fine fine of not less than $500 and not more than $1,000 plus imprisonment of less than one year for a conviction of possessing most illegal drugs. (For years, under New Mexico law possession of less than eight ounces of marijuana has been a misdemeanor.)

And possessing illegal drugs in a drug-fee school zone still would be a fourth-degree felony under SB 408.

The bill has been referred to the Senate Public Affairs Committee, and then to the Senate Judiciary Committee.