New Mexico Senate passes bill easing pot penalties; House pass separate measure

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SANTA FE, New Mexico — Two marijuana-related bills cleared hurdles in the New Mexico Legislature, including one passed by the Senate that would lower penalties for carrying small amounts of pot.

Legislation that would eliminate jail time for offenders caught with less than an ounce of marijuana barely passed the Senate with a 21-20 vote on Saturday. Under the bill, the punishment would be a ticket and a $50 fine.

Anyone with up to 8 ounces would be charged with a misdemeanor and avoid jail.

Supporters of Senate Bill 383 argued that passing the measure will make more money and resources available for use elsewhere. In addition, police, courts and jails would have less of a burden.

"This is not legalization. This is decriminalization of less than one ounce," said sponsor Sen. Joseph Cervantes, D-Las Cruces.

Opponents argued that the legislation is just a step shy of legalizing marijuana, the Albuquerque Journal reported ( ).

The bill now moves to the House, which passed a measure that could affect employees at medical marijuana providers.

House representatives voted 34-24 in favor of legislation requiring the employees to pass criminal background checks. If it passes the Senate and becomes law, the state Department of Health would have to adopt rules for background checks.

Supporters say the bill would permanently disqualify anyone with specific drug-related convictions from working at a medical marijuana dispensary. Rep. Paul Pacheco, a Republican, sponsored House Bill 527, calling it a preventative move.

"I think what we're trying to do is take a pre-emptive step to make sure the program stays steady and there are no problems with it," Pacheco said.

Nearly 390 people work at 23 licensed providers in the New Mexico Medical Cannabis Program, according to Pacheco.

Some Democrats said the bill wrongfully stigmatizes those workers.

"This is inventing a solution for a problem that does not exist," said Rep. Bill McCamley, D-Mesilla Park.

Information from: Albuquerque Journal,

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