Altered State

New Mexico passes major drug reform legislation

Silja J.A. Talvi

Almost two years ago, Republican Gov. Gary Johnson’s public statements about the failures of the drug war were met with statewide skepticism and bipartisan outrage. Since then, Johnson – a triathlete quick to note that he is drug- and alcohol-free – has faced what he calls a political crucifixion” for advocating the decriminalization of marijuana, among other major drug-policy reforms. I happen to have committed political suicide,” Johnson says. But somehow I’ve come back from the dead on this issue.” 

Last year, at the request of the maverick governor, a panel of advisers evaluated New Mexico’s drug policy and produced a report which, in turn, inspired several reform bills in the state legislature. On March 21, Johnson announced the passage of four major drug reform laws in New Mexico. The new legislation will restore voting rights to felons after their sentences are completed, and permit pharmacies to sell syringes to drug users without the risk of criminal liability. Another new law will provide civil and criminal immunity to a person who administers, uses or possesses an opioid antagonist – a drug used to counteract a heroin overdose that is illegal in many states. To address the skyrocketing number of women in prison, New Mexico will create a women’s drug court offering the option of treatment for the last 18 months of a nonviolent offender’s sentence. 

Numerous other bills – including measures to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, legalize medical marijuana, reform civil asset forfeiture laws, and provide increased funding for probation and drug treatment –moved rapidly through legislative committees with bipartisan support. But they eventually fell prey to the end-of-session deadline. Taken together, the legislation constitutes the most comprehensive drug policy reform agenda ever considered by a state legislature,” says Katharine Huffman, director of The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation’s New Mexico chapter. 

Johnson, whose second and final term ends in 2002, has insisted that the high cost of incarcerating drug users is a costly and short-sighted solution to what should be considered a public health problem. An avowed admirer of the progressive drug policies of the Netherlands and Switzerland, Johnson believes that New Mexico’s approach toward substance abuse is bound to have a positive impact” on rates of crime, incarceration and the spread of infectious diseases, including HIV and hepatitis C. 

With more than 2 million people in prison – a quarter of whom are incarcerated on drug-related charges– Johnson insists that the decriminalization of marijuana and the elimination of mandatory minimums are logical steps forward for the United States, even though most politicians have hesitated to embrace such ideas. The governor hopes New Mexico’s bold drug policy reform will influence other states to do the same. There’s no question that this issue is going to be a tipping point,” he says. 

In New Mexico, support for drug reform is running high: Two-thirds of New Mexicans now support eliminating criminal penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana and providing treatment, not incarceration, for users of harder drugs. Last November, five states passed some form of drug policy reform. California’s Proposition 36 mandates treatment, instead of incarceration, for first- and second-time drug offenders. 

Rather than continuing with the fiction that we can create a drug-free society, the alternative approach is to acknowledge that drugs are here to stay,” says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of The Lindesmith Center. We should focus instead on reducing the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with drugs and our failed prohibitionist policies.”

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Silja J.A. Talvi, a senior editor at In These Times, is an investigative journalist and essayist with credits in many dozens of newspapers and magazines nationwide, including The Nation, Salon, Santa Fe Reporter, Utne, and the Christian Science Monitor.
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