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Policing changed for the better thanks to new marijuana law


Frank and I were home after our first year of college, and Bruce had just graduated from high school in the summer of 1977 when we decided it would be safe to smoke pot in an abandoned field off a quiet road.

We were in an abandoned field because none of us had a home of our own at the time. We were all staying with our parents for the summer. Several years ago, a Sunland Park City Council member got caught driving around town getting high with his buddies. And I wondered, doesn’t that man have a living room?

The abandoned field wasn’t safe. The police officers dumped our baggie into the wind, took down information from our IDs, gave us a stern talking to and ended by threatening that they would “talk to their shift commander about what to do next.” There was no next.

With the benefit of 44 years hindsight, I can now see that the officers were both reasonable and professional. But that didn’t stop us from cursing the “pigs” later that night while passing around joints at a party where we told and retold the story over and over, ginning up more outrage with each new telling.

That was my only experience with the police back then, but they were never far from my mind. Anytime I was buying from a person I didn’t know that well, or trying to find a place away from home to smoke, I was always worried and on high alert.

I suspect my friends and I were never far from the officers’ minds either. Enforcement of marijuana laws was a huge part of a policeman’s job back then. The Drug Enforcement Administration had just been created four years earlier, in 1973. Mandatory sentencing laws would soon follow.

For my friends and me, it created an us-against-them mentality toward police that still exists, although to a much lesser extent. And I do regret the porcine slurs.

That same 44 years of hindsight tells me that my friends and I had a privilege that we did not recognize or understand at the time. The officers were never angry or acted aggressively toward us. I never felt in any kind of physical danger. And, I always suspected we would be able to talk our way out of it.

I now know that others in that same situation would not have had my sense of confidence or expectation that all would end well.

The job of police officers in New Mexico changed for the better Tuesday, when possession of marijuana became legal. According to Sheriff Kim Stewart, the job has been changing for some time. It’s been a while since marijuana enforcement has been a priority, she said.

That’s a good thing.

There has been a loud cry for police reform during the past year, since the death of George Floyd. Reform should not mean defunding the police, but it should mean reassessing how we use those resources, and what we can reasonably expect from police officers.

If the war on drugs has proven anything, it’s the limitations of law enforcement. Police officers can and should investigate, solve and work to prevent crimes. But we need to better define what is, and what is not, a crime

Police can’t change society. They can’t mend our bad habits or dictate our private activities. And nobody should have ever suggested to them that they could.

Walter Rubel can be reached at waltrubel@gmail.com.

Walt Rubel