New Mexico Post Mortem: Modest Reforms Enacted as Legislative Session Closes, Major Components of Johnson Package Await Another Time 3/23/01

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The first attempt to pass a comprehensive drug reform package at the state level ended last weekend with mixed results. Caught in the press of last-minute business at the state capitol, the most far-reaching elements of the Republican governor's reform package were not defeated but timed out.

In the frenetic last days of the session, drug reform took a back seat to issues such as education reform (done), electric power deregulation (wait five years), and battles over whether New Mexicans should be allowed to carry concealed weapons (they will) or face tougher penalties for drunk driving (they won't).

Gov. Gary Johnson and legislative supporters succeeded in passing four bills, three from his package and one other that will affect thousands of state drug offenders. That bill restores voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences. Asset forfeiture reform and medical marijuana bills passed both houses, but died for lack of time to reconcile minor differences.

David Goldstein of the Lindesmith Center/Drug Policy Foundation's New Mexico office was upbeat despite the mixed results. The session was "absolutely a victory," he told DRCNet. "A year ago, the legislature said it wouldn't even discuss drug reform. This year, drug reform has been a significant theme, and we did get some legislation passed into law."

TLC-DPF was the primary sponsor of the legislative push. The organization hired a pair of well-connected New Mexico politicians as lobbyists in addition to opening the New Mexico office to support the reform effort.

In a news conference after the session ended, Gov. Johnson also emphasized the positive.

"Arguably, what happened during this session advanced a set of bills that have never gone this far in any legislature in the country," he said. "So on one hand, gosh, I wish a few more of them would have been heard or voted on and passed. On the other hand, as far as they went, they went a long way."

The three bills that passed both houses and will be signed by Gov. Johnson are:

  • Creation of Women's Reentry Drug Court (SB 200), which provides for the early release of women convicted of nonviolent drug offenses into a court-administered treatment program. Women serving the last 18 months of their sentences could opt for treatment in the drug court program instead of continued incarceration.
  • Pharmacy Syringe Sales (SB 320 & HB 812), which removes the potential for criminal liability for pharmacists who sell syringes to possible drug users. The bill gives pharmacists protection similar to that given to people who distribute clean syringes under the state's 1997 Harm Reduction Act.
  • Anti-Opioid Administration Liability Limits (SB 318, HB 813), which creates civil and criminal immunity for persons who use, possess, distribute, or administer opioid anatagonists. Such drugs counteract the effects of opiates and are used to treat overdoses.
A fourth bill, not part of Johnson's package but of interest to drug reformers, also passed:
  • Restoration of Felony Voting Rights (SB 204), which restores the right to vote to felons once their sentences have been completed.
But the most ambitious provisions of Johnson's package -- sentencing and asset forfeiture reforms, medical marijuana and marijuana decriminalization -- all failed to make it through the legislative process.

Medical marijuana came closest, with slightly differing bills having passed both houses. But as the clock ticked down, medipot supporters were unable to press the lawmakers to schedule a Senate vote on the House bill. (The Senate had passed a bill with a comfortable 29-12 margin, compared to a much narrower margin of victory in the House.)

"That medical marijuana passed both houses, but died because they couldn't get around to reconciling the minor differences, is a major disappointment for us," said Richard Schmitz of the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org). "It was the one bill that came closest to passing, but we think it fell prey to active efforts by the opposition to keep it off the agenda on Saturday [the session's final day]," he told DRCNet.

As for marijuana decriminalization -- the governor's bill would have made possession of seven ounces or less a civil violation subject only to a fine -- "We would have liked to have seen decrim, but it became apparent that the bill's chances of gaining approval weren't that great," Schmitz told DRCNet. Still, said Schmitz, "Not once did those marijuana bills lose a vote, in committee or on the floor. We see that as very promising."

Keith Stroup, head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org), who worked with Gov. Johnson to push through the reforms, told DRCNet the package may have fallen victim to partisan conflicts not directly related to drug policy. Both houses of the state legislature are controlled by Democrats, while Gov. Johnson is a Republican.

"The Democratic leadership apparently made the decision not to bring it up," said Stroup. "Especially on the medical marijuana bill, there were partisan currents that had little to do with the debate. There are frequently issues between the Democrats and the governor, and sometimes it's payback time. I suspect that was the case this time."

The governor's sentencing reforms, which would have marked a sharp retreat from the drug war's emphasis on incarceration, made even less progress in the legislature.

Surveying the messy results at session's end, NORML's Stroup said he was "disappointed," but saw no reason for reformers to despair.

"People have to understand that it's easy to kill a bill, difficult to pass one, and somebody threw a monkey wrench in the works this time," Stroup argued. "Yes, it's a disappointment, but it's also a good first step. The second time around, we can win."

"The governor deserves enormous credit," Stroup continued. "He pushed the drug reform package more strongly than any governor ever has. I think because of Johnson's efforts, it was clear that the whole debate had an enormously more positive tenor than it did two years ago. He has used his office to good advantage in educating voters about drug issues."

But Stroup also acknowledged that the drug reform movement is still saddled by its origins in the counterculture of the 1960s. "Look, we had popular support and the governor behind us, and we still couldn't win. There's a lot of ignorance and misinformation to overcome, and face it, marijuana still carries with it associations of antiwar demonstrations and long-haired hippies. Some of those folks in the legislature were using that issue to fight a larger cultural battle. When you mention marijuana to people like that, it's like waving a red flag in front of a bull."

Indeed, the unsuited and somewhat scruffy appearance of some New Mexico activists became a topic of discussion among reformers, exposing tactical fault lines within the movement.

For Lindesmith-DPF's Goldstein, the task is not exposing divisions but establishing a lasting presence in the state. "We're here for the long haul," he told DRCNet. "We're going to be dealing with the bills that were passed, and we'll be forming a New Mexico coalition for a sensible drug policy. And don't forget our national conference; it'll be here in Albuquerque in May."

And, Goldstein added, there are still two more legislative sessions possible during Gov. Johnson's remaining tenure. If Johnson and the legislature cannot resolve pending budget disputes, he could call a special session in September. While Goldstein said addressing unfinished drug reform business at that session was "not likely," at his Saturday press conference Gov. Johnson said he might ask lawmakers to reconsider the medical marijuana bill.

Goldstein also pointed out that in next year's short legislative session, devoted primarily to budget matters, the governor can introduce bills not related to the budget. The governor has given no indication of any plans to reintroduce his remaining drug reform bills then.

Visit http://governor.state.nm.us/drug_policy/ for more detailed information on the bills as well as Gov. Johnson's broader drug reform agenda.

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Issue #178, 3/23/01 Mexico's President Fox Talks Legalization, Becomes Second Western Hemisphere Head of State to Break With Drug War Consensus | Sentencing Commission Sets Harsh New Ecstasy Penalties, Panel Ignores Scientific, Medical Testimony, Heeds Only Drug Warriors | Supreme Court Bars Drug-Testing of Expectant Mothers in South Carolina Case | See No Evil: New Jersey State Officials Sat on Racial Profiling Data for Years, Testimony at Hearings Contradicts Earlier Accounts, Points Finger at Verniero | New Mexico Post Mortem: Modest Reforms Enacted as Legislative Session Closes, Major Components of Johnson Package Await Another Time | DRCNet Interview: Dave Miller, Legislative Liaison for New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson | Puerto Rico Update: Drug Czar Office Created, Collazo Bows Out, McCaffrey Signs on as Advisor | Australian Prime Ministers Ousts Reformers from Drug Panel, Shows "Zero Tolerance" for Contrary Opinions | Alert: Drop the Rock (New York State) | The Reformer's Calendar | Errata: Switzerland | Editorial: The Next Wave of the Drug Debate
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