Heinrich joins Johnson in call to legalize cannabis

Martin Heinrich in Shiprock on October 6 2012. Courtesy photo/TeamHeinrich Facebook page

What a difference six years can make. As a newly elected U.S. senator, Martin Heinrich was cautious in 2012 when asked about legalizing marijuana. Now, he's on board. Up for re-election in November, the Democrat tweeted April 20 that "it's time to legalize marijuana."

And this summer, Heinrich signed on with little fanfare as a co-sponsor of the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act, which would remove the drug from the federal government's list of Schedule I narcotics.

Of course, one of Heinrich's two challengers, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a Libertarian, has been calling for legalizing marijuana since the 1990s, before it was cool.

But the prospect of Congress passing legislation to legalize the drug isn't promising, particularly if Republicans maintain control of the Senate in the election Nov. 5.

Even so, the U.S. Senate race in New Mexico offers a sign of the times, with two of the three candidates calling for legalizing recreational marijuana as more states and entire countries adopt increasingly liberal policies toward the drug.

Heinrich said ultimately people are going to use marijuana and it is better to have a controlled situation.

The legislation he is backing this year along with eight other Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level by removing the drug from the government's schedule of controlled narcotics. Marijuana is currently listed as a Schedule I narcotic alongside heroin and peyote.

Removing marijuana from the schedule of controlled narcotics would allow states to legalize it without the looming threat of a federal crackdown.

The bill would also support state and local governments in expunging records of marijuana possession convictions, meaning many criminal records for relatively minor nonviolent crimes could be wiped clean.

Johnson has been outspoken on these issues for years. He has lambasted the war on drugs as an expensive bust, and he pushed to legalize marijuana when he was governor at a time when such proposals were relatively radical. Johnson is also known to enjoy the drug himself.

Johnson argued that regulating marijuana more like alcohol would rein in the government's power and expand personal freedom.

Republican Mick Rich's U.S. Senate campaign says he recognizes the role of medical marijuana but is opposed to legalizing the drug for recreational use. Rich's campaign says research shows detrimental effects of recreational cannabis use.

And that message is sure to resonate with plenty of voters in a vastly rural and in some ways relatively socially conservative state racked with substance-abuse issues - from alcohol to heroin.

A longer, original version of this story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of The Taos News.

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