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Santa Fe city council votes to decriminalize marijuana

By Joseph Kolb

ALBUQUERQUE N.M. (Reuters) - Santa Fe on Wednesday became the latest U.S. city to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, with lawmakers in the New Mexico capital voting to change local statutes rather than put the issue to a public ballot in November.

The Santa Fe City Council voted five to four in favor of revising a law classifying possession of less than one ounce (28 grams) of marijuana as a misdemeanor.

The new regulation, which takes effect in 30 days, reduces criminal penalties that range from fines of between $50 to $100 and up to 15 days in jail into an as yet undetermined civil citation penalty.

The council had been expected merely to seek a vote in November after pro-marijuana activists obtained thousands of petition signatures and a five-member county commission approved the ballot measure on Tuesday. [ID:nL1N0QX08U]

Instead, city lawmakers opted to change the statute outright. Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales cast a dissenting vote on Wednesday, despite supporting the change, saying he thought the issue should have been put to the public.

"I have been in favor of decriminalization all along, I just wanted this to be on the November ballot in order for the citizens to make the decision," Gonzales told Reuters.

Emily Kaltenbach, New Mexico state director for the drug-law reform group Drug Policy Alliance, had also hoped for a broader vote, but said: "It still is an historic win for us all."

Kaltenbach said activists obtained some 11,000 signatures and that her internal polling showed more than 70 percent of Santa Fe residents supported decriminalization.

Santa Fe, a city of some 70,000 residents about 60 miles northeast of Albuquerque, is the latest U.S. city to take steps towards decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, still banned by the federal government.

Washington D.C. earlier this year decriminalized possession of less than one ounce. Colorado and Washington state have gone further, legalizing recreational marijuana use in voter initiatives in 2012.

(Reporting by Joseph Kolb in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Writing by Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Crispian Balmer)

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