The California Senate recently defeated a bill that would have classified all drug possession offenses as misdemeanors rather than felonies. If passed, California would have joined 13 other states that classify drug possession as a misdemeanor.
Senator Make Leno of San Francisco sponsored the bill, SB 1506, as a logical follow-up to Governor Schwarzenegger’s 2010 reclassification of possession charges for less than one ounce of marijuana to an infraction. The bill would have reduced maximum sentencing from three years to one, while increasing some fines to help fund treatment programs. It would have applied to small amounts of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and other drugs.
Leno highlighted a Legislative Analyst Office estimate that the law would reduce the state’s inmate population by about 2,000, and cut local and state law enforcement costs by over $200 million per year. This would be a huge help to the state, which currently has overcrowded jails and faces a budget crisis.
However, the primary motivation of the bill was safety and rehabilitation. Those charged with felonies for possession of a small amount of a drug often see long jail times and later have difficulty finding employment or housing due to the black mark of a felony record. The law could also help undo the damage to minority communities who some say are unfairly targeted by law enforcement. According to Tulchin Research, a polling firm, some 70 percent of Californians support reducing penalties for personal drug use.
However, the bill failed to pass largely due to the opposition of law enforcement groups who questioned how reducing the penalty for drug use could help reduce crime. The bill ultimately only got 10 votes in the 40-member senate.
Californians accused of drug possession should contact a qualified and experienced criminal attorney to discuss their legal options.