The war on drugs is about to take a monumental new turn in New Mexico. Proposed legislation would put the state on the map as the first in the nation to formally shift drug control policy from incarceration to treatment.
The Legislature is now considering, and will vote on this weekend, a sweeping package of laws that amount to a dramatically different approach for dealing with the problem of drugs — including legislation that would decriminalize the possession of marijuana for personal use.
Other states may soon follow suit. The legislation is being aggressively promoted by the state's Republican governor, who acknowledges he may be committing an act of political suicide.
Gov. Gary Johnson has defied his own party to spearhead the proposed new laws. "This is a medical problem," he insists. "This is not a criminal justice problem."
A Risky Political Move
Among the bills being debated is a measure that would make the possession of an ounce of marijuana a civil infraction — like a parking ticket — not a crime. It would also legalize medicinal marijuana.
It will give judges discretion in how they issue drug-related sentences. And first- and second-time offenders convicted of possession of small amounts of narcotics — everything from heroin to cocaine — would be sentenced to treatment, not jail.
"The time has come in this country that we stop arresting individuals for doing arguably no harm to anyone other than themselves," says Johnson.
At the heart of the governor's philosophy is the idea that locking people away in prison for drug possession simply doesn't work. He pushes his radical approach, knowing full well it will likely cost him his political future.
Republican state Rep. Ron Godbey thinks it is extremely dangerous legislation. He says the governor has betrayed his party.
"Any time drugs have been readily available, consumption increases, addiction increases and crime goes up," says Godbey.
Treatment Over Incarceration
The governor counters with the argument drug experts have pressed for years: Tough enforcement alone doesn't work.
"We have more drugs available, they're more easily available, they're purer and less expensive than they were 30 years ago when we started the war on drugs," says Katherine Huffman of the Lindesmith Center.
Anna-Mare Perez, a 32-year-old mother of four, is a prime example of the governor's belief.
She is an addict, first locked up for possession of a small amount of heroin. It was the beginning of many arrests and more prison.
"They just wanted to warehouse me," says Perez. "Put me in prison and detain me for a little while."
Under the proposed legislation, Perez's first drug arrest would have landed her in a clinic instead of a cell.
With these new laws, the governor and others are convinced Perez's life — and thousands like hers — could have turned out differently.