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New Law Would Reduce Penalty for Simple Drug Possession

April 19, 2012

The California State Senate is considering a bill introduced by State Senator Mark Leno that would reduce the penalty for simple drug possession from a possible felony to a misdemeanor only, and would eliminate the recent trend of lengthy prison sentences for minor drug possession.  The bill, SB1506, recently won support from a Senate legislative committee.

You might think, didn’t California already reduce the penalty for simple drug possession?  No. Possession of meth and ecstasy and many controlled substances is a “wobbler,” meaning the prosecutor can charge either a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the facts of the case; possession of cocaine, heroin, and many other drugs is a felony.  In 2000, California voters passed Proposition 36, which allows people convicted of simple possession to get treatment for drug use instead of going to prison, but the initial money for the program has run out and the state has not funded it further.

If SB1506 becomes enacted into law, California would become the 14th state in the country to treat simple drug possession as a misdemeanor.  Simple drug possession means drugs for personal use and not intended to be sold.  Under federal law, simple drug possession is a misdemeanor.  The bill does not apply to anyone involved in selling, manufacturing, or possessing drugs for sale.

Senator Leno’s reasons for reducing the penalty for simple drug possession are that there is no evidence to show that long prison sentences deter or limit people from abusing drugs, and meanwhile, harsh penalties for simple drug possession causes prison and jail overcrowding.  He added, “Time behind bars and felony records often have horrible unintended consequences for people trying to overcome addiction because they are unlikely to receive drug treatment in prison and have few job prospects and educational opportunities when they leave. This legislation will help implement public safety realignment and protect our communities by reserving prison and jail space for more serious offenders.”

Senator Leno believes that the bill would help alleviate overcrowding in state prisons and county jails, ease pressure on California’s court system, and result in millions of dollars in annual savings for both state and local governments.  Indeed, the Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that SB1506 would result in annual savings of nearly $160 million for counties and approximately $64 million for the state. It also would reduce the average daily state prison population by about 2,200 people and the average daily county jails population by 2,000 people.

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