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Gwynne Ann Unruh is a former award winning reporter at the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

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With a groundbreaking decision, a state district judge ruled in early January that Bernalillo County’s Metropolitan Detention Center must allow qualifying patients access to medical marijuana. Someone who is incarcerated for possession or sale of cannabis may now be someone who can legally smoke medical cannabis. The ruling creates a precedent that patients, even those who are incarcerated, must be allowed access to medical cannabis—even in a prison cell.

New Mexico has relatively relaxed marijuana laws, with 75 percent of the residents favoring recreational legalization. Medical cannabis use and cultivation is allowed in the state, with recreational use remaining illegal. Albuquerque and Santa Fe and several other municipalities have decriminalized possession of small amounts. Possession of up to an ounce of cannabis is a petty misdemeanor, punishable by fines and potential jail time. According to a written Department of Corrections policy, probationers or parolees with a valid medical cannabis card will get a pass for testing positive for the substance.

At last count 101,770 residents of New Mexico have medical marijuana licenses, according to the state Department of Health. That’s about 5 percent of the state’s population. According to a Pew Research Study taken in 2019, 67 percent of Americans support legalizing weed. So why was marijuana made illegal in the first place? Making marijuana illegal was essentially a way to outlaw being an immigrant or not white. For Western states a driving reason was a fear of Mexican immigrants who used the plant. In Eastern states it was fear of African Americans and jazz musicians who used cannabis to “take advantage of white women.”

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is spearheading the state’s legalization campaign. “I’ve listened to deep concerns for people whose lives have been turned upside down by the inequitable effects of minor marijuana convictions along with an undeniable call for increased public safety, especially for New Mexico children,” Lujan Grisham wrote to constituents. “Repairing the damage done by cannabis prohibition is not negotiable,” she said. “It is time to stop criminalizing people for cannabis and instead realize the economic and social benefits of having cannabis possession and sales regulated in New Mexico.”

If someone is convicted on a cannabis charge from simple possession they could still end up in jail and be encumbered with a criminal record that can strip them of many critical opportunities like employment, child custody, housing and financial aid. Decriminalizing the possession of cannabis would help people across the board, especially people of color in New Mexico, avoid the prison cycle or the jail cycle.

“New Mexicans are ready for cannabis legalization, and they want to see equity built into the legislative proposal to help right the many wrongs caused by the failed war on drugs,” Emily Kaltenbach, senior director of resident states and New Mexico at Drug Policy Alliance, said in a press release.

A tiny amount of the cannabis can still fuel incarceration, both in our local jails and our prisons. Getting a conviction for low-level drug possession is devastating to an individual and their entire family. It’s time for a “get out of jail free card” and legalize cannabis in New Mexico.

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