ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Following the lead of a governor who has campaigned across the country in support of reforming marijuana restrictions, New Mexico lawmakers trying to change the state's drug laws said Tuesday they have a good chance at passing their agenda this year.
"I think there's a different temperament from last year," state Sen. Roman Maes, D-Santa Fe, said.
Six bills are on the docket as state lawmakers return to the capital for their latest session.
The bills, which will be introduced as a package, would allow the use of marijuana for critically ill people; give judges discretion in sentencing; allow fines instead of jail for people possessing an ounce or less of marijuana; reform civil forfeiture laws; allow treatment instead of jail for nonviolent drug offenders; and make offenders who have served their sentences eligible for federal assistance such as food stamps.
The measures will save money, help families and put people into treatment rather than jail, the sponsors say.
In order for the bills to have a chance, Maes said, Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, the main supporter of more liberal drug laws, must clearly state that he's willing to put more money into treatment.
Rep. Joe Thompson, R-Albuquerque, said he has hopes for the package because his colleagues have had a year to study the issues and many voted for similar legislation last year "without the sky falling on them."
"We have a little bit more of an edge than we had in years past," he said.
But New Mexico may have no greater chance than California in allowing terminally ill persons to use marijuana for treatment. The Supreme Court has already weighed in on the matter, saying that state laws cannot protect medical marijuana users from federal prosecutions.
To emphasize its commitment to the law, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency has recently busted several medical marijuana distributors in California, leading supporters to cry foul. California passed its medical marijuana law by referendum in 1996 and has since been followed by seven other states.
Nevertheless, New Mexico lawmakers said their constituents — even those who don't agree — are happy the issue is being discussed.
Discussions are raising the issue's profile among constituents, Maes said, and "as a result, they're starting to realize the repercussions. You'd be surprised at the number of families contacting their legislators. ... Before it was just a shutdown, 'We don't want to talk about it.'"
Maes said his views have been well-publicized, but "not one person has come up to me and said it's foolish, it's foolhardy, don't do that. ... Right now people are looking for opportunities to basically help some of their family members."
Despite his solidarity with the marijuana law reform movement, Gov. Johnson wants the 2002 session to spend $20 million to expand state prisons, a measure that may run smack against his supporters' agenda.
"If I have anything to say about it, I'm going to divert that money, that new money, into treatment programs," Maes said. "We have no business putting more money into prisons. We have more than enough prison facilities; we need treatment."
Rep. Gail Beam, D-Albuquerque, said it's time New Mexico reallocated money from jail to treatment — particularly since the state faces difficult financial times.
"I'm particularly interested in avoiding the costs that are skyrocketing in respect to our prison population and keeping prison for more violent offenders," said Beam, who will sponsor the measure for fines rather than jail for possessing small amounts of marijuana.
On Monday, a new anti-drug group urged lawmakers not to liberalize the laws. Protect New Mexico contends easing drug laws will make New Mexico a haven for drug users and charges that pro-legalization forces are using "misleading terminology like 'harm reduction' to hide their fundamental goal — legalizing drugs."
Rep. Rob Burpo of Albuquerque, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, used an Albuquerque elementary school as a backdrop to announce Tuesday he would oppose efforts to liberalize drug laws.
"Regardless of the semantics, to decriminalize is to legalize marijuana, cocaine and heroin and that is absolutely wrong," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.