January 13, 2021

Legislators seek to reform drug laws

The New Mexico State Capitol, or Roundhouse Wikicommons.

New Mexico lawmakers have tried to take on drug addiction and deadly overdoses for decades. During previous years, lawmakers from both major parties attempted to address opiate epidemics in the state through both increased penalties and more progressive measures. 

This year, with not only a Democratic majority and a Democratic governor, but also a new incoming class of  more progressive Democrats in the Senate, the state could see movement on bills that would lower penalties for drug possession as well as public health minded approaches to addiction. 

Rep. Debbie Armstrong, D-Albuquerque, told NM Political Report that she plans to sponsor a bill that would allow for safe and legal places to use illegal narcotics, often referred to as safe injection sites. The idea, Armstrong said, is that people would be able to bring already obtained narcotics to a designated location where there would be medical professionals on hand to assist in the event of an overdose and provide resources for recovery. 

“It makes sense to me, for public safety, for the health and safety of the individual and a different attempt to try and get folks help,” Armstrong said. 

Armstrong, who has consistently sponsored healthcare related bills during her six years in the Legislature, said safe consumption sites would hopefully address concerns in many communities regarding used needles scattered around public areas like parks and playgrounds. But, she said, it would also address over-criminalization of substance addiction. 

“It is definitely a healthcare issue,” Armstrong said. “But it is a criminal justice reform as well, because this is a safe place with no threat of being arrested. It’s safe from that perspective, but it’s an opportunity for us to deliver healthcare and intervention for someone who is struggling with addiction.”

Emily Kaltenbach, the New Mexico director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said she is working with Armstrong to pass the bill and said New Mexico has a chance to be a “progressive leader” by passing such legislation. The idea hasn’t happened at a state level yet. 

City leaders in Philadelphia, up until recently, had pushed for a safe consumption area, but a federal court effectively halted that plan. San Francisco officials are working with California state leaders to allow safe consumption sites.

Kaltenbach acknowledged possible federal roadblocks for New Mexico, but said she’s still hopeful.

“There are some federal obstacles, however I’m more confident that moving into a new administration that they won’t be as acute,” Kaltenbach said.

Kaltenbach added that these types of sites can provide “wrap-around services” and would treat addiction like a health issue instead of a criminal one. 

“If someone were to experience an overdose, someone would be there to administer Naloxone, if it was an opiate,” Kaltenbach said. “There’s going to be education about safety. A lot of communities have fentanyl strips where they can test substances, for impurities or for fentanyl for other things.”

New Mexico has a long history with opiate addiction, and like other parts of the U.S., has recently seen the negative impacts of fentanyl, a prescription opiate that is much more potent than morphine. 

European countries and Canada have had safe injection sites for years and while they vary, some studies have shown a decrease in emergency trips for overdoses and lower opioid-related deaths. 

But like all legislation, Armstrong’s bill is not guaranteed to pass. 

She said she’s not sure how the Legislature will react to the bill, but that the legislative process can take years sometimes. 

“You know, a lot of new ideas take a lot of time, and take multiple times,” Armstrong said. “So whether it’ll pass this time or not, I don’t know.”

But, Armstrong said, many of her fellow lawmakers showed interest during presentations on the subject during the interim. 

“I expect it will get a good discussion,” she said. “Whether it gets through this time or not, I think it’s an important move.”

Lowering penalties

While Armstrong will be pushing for a healthcare approach to addiction in the state House of Representatives, a state senator will be pushing to lower penalties for simple possession, also in the name of health care. 

Sen. Jacob Candelaria, D-Albuquerque, said he plans to sponsor a bill that would defelonize the possession of small amounts of all drugs in the state. 

Possession of small amounts of cannabis, without a medical authorization has already been decriminalized, but possession of drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines is a fourth degree felony in New Mexico and comes with an 18-month sentence in prison.  

“What that has resulted in, is the incarceration of nonviolent offenders and putting people in prison and making them felons, not because they’re violent criminals who are roaming the streets looking to do harm to their neighbors, but because they have a health problem, which is a chemical addiction,” Candelaria said. 

Candelaria said the bill would lower the penalty for possessing illegal drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor and a person could still face fines and a short amount of time in jail, but they would not live with a felony conviction on their record. 

“These aren’t people who are part of some vast cartel operation or committing acts of violence,” Candelaria said. 

Kaltenbach said the Drug Policy Alliance is supporting Candelaria’s bill, even though the group would ultimately like to someday see no criminal charges for simple drug possession.  

“We think this is the right step right now for New Mexico,” Kaltenbach said. “We need to eliminate criminal penalties for possession to begin with, but right now, taking possession from a felony to a misdemeanor is huge, and would have a very positive impact on New Mexico families and the criminal justice system in general.”