Statewide Poll Shows Voters Support Reduced Penalties for Drug Possession

methAs Yolo County continues to prosecute and imprison individuals for possession of less than a gram of meth, polling released on Monday shows that voters increasingly are favoring reduced sentences and penalties for drug possession.

The March 21-24 survey of 800 California general election voters was conducted statewide by Lake Research Partner. It was released on Monday and  shows that nearly three-quarters (72%) of California voters support reducing the penalty for possession of a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use from a felony to a misdemeanor, including a solid majority who support this reform strongly.

According to a release from the pollsters, “Underpinning public support is the widely-held perception that the state imprisons too many people and that current penalties are far too harsh.”

They continue, “Not only does support for reducing this offense from a felony to a misdemeanor cross the usual partisan, regional, and demographic divides, it also holds up strongly under attack. Moreover, this is now a voting issue for many Californians; by nearly a three-to-one margin, voters are more likely to vote for a state representative who supports this reform.”

The poll goes further than that, as 56% believe that too many people are imprisoned in California.  Additionally, a 51% majority believes that those caught with a small amount of drugs for personal use should spend fewer than 3 months (27%) or no time at all (24%) in jail, which is considerably less time than those offenders could potentially receive if they are convicted of a felony.

“We found a widely, and intensely, held belief among voters that California imprisons too many people and can no longer afford to spend billions on prisons amid massive cuts to education and social services,” said Daniel Gotoff of Lake Research Partners, which designed and administered the survey.

“This is a voting issue now. Politicians stand in the way of this popular reform at their own risk.”

“Support for reducing drug possession penalties crosses all the partisan, regional, and demographic lines that normally divide California voters,” said Allen Hopper, police practices director with the ACLU of Northern California. “Solid majorities of Republicans, Democrats and Independents from every corner of the state overwhelmingly agree that it’s time for a new approach. We need to stop wasting precious tax dollars on unnecessary, expensive jail and prison sentences.”

“Sacramento’s plan to keep people convicted of personal drug possession at the county level doesn’t address the belief of a majority of Californians that drug possession shouldn’t be a felony and that people shouldn’t be locked up for longer than three months for this offense,” said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, deputy state director in Southern California for the Drug Policy Alliance.

The current penalty in California for possession of heroin or cocaine is 16 months to 3 years in prison.  The penalty for possession of meth is roughly the same.  Yolo County increases the penalty by double-charging transportation with possession.

Just last week Yolo Judicial Watch watched a man sentenced to 32 months in prison, part of that was for possession of 0.85 grams of meth and the other part was violation of probation, which of course was for possession of meth.

The expense of such prison sentences should give taxpayers pause given the ineffectiveness of drug laws and the lack of funding available for real treatment options.

Last week Governor Brown signed AB 109, which keeps drug possession for personal use a felony and retains the long sentences, but provides that lock-up would happen in county facilities.

That law’s future is uncertain, however, as it only goes into effect if voters approve the governor’s plan to extend a series of taxes otherwise set to expire this year.

The polling found that voters overwhelming oppose keeping possession of a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use a felony crime.  Of those polled, just 12% believe this offense warrants a felony charge.

“Fully three-quarters of voters (75%) believe the punishment should be something less punitive than a felony crime, including a plurality (40%) who believe possession of a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use should be considered an infraction with no imprisonment at all,” the pollsters write in their analysis.

Moreover, the poll finds these results hold across party lines.

“Upon learning that the charge for possession of a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use is currently a felony crime, voters overwhelming favor changing it to a misdemeanor,” the pollsters report.

They add, “More than seven in ten voters support this reform, and by more than a 4:1 margin: 72% favor to 16% opposed. Just 11% of voters are undecided on this issue.”

Moreover, “Support for reform is extraordinarily widespread, encompassing majorities of Democrats (79%), independents (72%), and Republicans (66%), as well as majorities of voters in every corner of the state. Support is intense as well, with a 54% majority of voters strongly favoring the proposed reduction.”

“Californians aren’t just interested in saving money. They’re also interested in seeing people contribute to their families and communities,” said Kris Lev-Twombly, director of programs at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. “California voters want to see that people are not burdened with a life-long felony record for drug possession that makes it tough to find a job or support a family. Current penalties work against individual, family and community wellbeing and public safety.”

“Californians clearly and strongly reject the state’s misplaced priorities that have pushed funding toward jails and prisons and away from schools,” said Alice Huffman, president of the California State Conference of the NAACP. “The California NAACP urges the State Legislature and the Governor to listen to voters and reduce the penalty for drug possession for personal use from a felony to a misdemeanor.”

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. hpierce

    Depends what drug. “Pot”, I agree with it should be a “ticket” at worst… PCP… major time for anyone who possesses… I have been to a crime scene where someone on PCP ran across a freeway, jumped over a back fence, broke into a house, attacked a pregnant woman (seriously injuring her and killing her 6 month fetus (yes I know a lot of folks on this blog would probably say the fetus’ death shouldn’t count)), then as she ran outside screaming, the perp found a 2+ year old toddler in his crib and hacked him to death. Major blood spatter on walls next to the crib, and ~ 15 SF of pooled blood where the mother was attacked. The attacker, as I recall, got neither death penalty nor LIPWPP. The drug should not have been “out there” for his use. What is worse, the police looked the other way on his drug use and dealing (prior to the grisly murders), because he was an “informant”. David, be careful what you advocated for on loose drug laws/penalties.

  2. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “Last week Governor Brown signed AB 109, which keeps drug possession for personal use a felony and retains the long sentences, but provides that lock-up would happen in county facilities.”

    Interesting that Brown doesn’t agree w ostensible result of alleged polls. I agree w hpierce: be careful what you wish for. To downgrade drug use to a misdemeanor may have unintended consequences…

  3. Mr Obvious

    Good think the era of PCP is over. It was crazy with all those people committing violent crimes while on PCP. Meth is a much safer alternative. Nobody commits crimes while on meth. People never commit crimes to get money to buy meth. Meth doesn’t destroy lives. I wonder why people haven’t done multiple studies on the effects of meth and its relationship to other crimes.

    People are much better parents while on meth. Meth users have so much more energy to do all the things parents should do; cook, clean, bathe their kids, read them books. We should start a little comparative competition. Which parents turn out better kids, meth using parents VS. non drug using parents. We will have to limit it to parents who only possess meth for personal use.

    Meth users are much better equipped to hold jobs and contribute to society.

    Cocaine is just a party drug. Coke has never hurt anyone. Entire drug wars haven’t been fought over cocaine. Nobody have ever killed anyone over coke. Coke may be even be better than meth. Maybe if we actually legalized coke we could lower the amount spent on state provide dental service. You don’t see coke users walking around with broken, green, or missing teeth. If we are only talking about saving money this makes all kinds of sense. You should actually get a Republican to sponsor a bill about this. The Republicans only care about money, not people.

    If we are going to minimize the ramifications of using cocaine we need to throw crack in as well. It only takes a little cocaine to make a bunch of crack.

    That was a fun break from reality.

  4. roger bockrath

    Possession of anything that can be put in your body, for personal use, should be legal. However, people need to be held accountable for their actions while under the influence, strictly accountable.

  5. David M. Greenwald

    And making these things illegal has really helped, hasn’t it Mr. Obvious. Let’s see we have the Mexican drug lords murdering people in Mexico. We have illegal trafficking of drugs and people over borders which are intermingled. We have the cost of drug enforcement efforts. We have the court costs. The costs of imprisonment. And to what end?

    We’re spending billions on law enforcement efforts to stop drugs that can now be grown in people’s backyards or manufactured in their bathrooms.

    I’m not saying that any of this is harmless, I just think we could find a better way to spend the money that would be more cost-effective and effective.

  6. David M. Greenwald

    Elaine: You can argue against any change in status quo – no matter how bad the status quo is – by suggesting there will be unintended consequences. But at some point you have to take a chance and acknowledge that current policies are not working and are bankrupting this county, this state and this nation.

  7. craised

    If we are thinking about trivializing the use of mind altering substances in our society by making it a misdemeanor instead of a felony we are simply creating a catch and release program.

    We should require all chemical and petroleum companies to add dyes to their products, so when they are improperly used in order to make illegal drugs it would turn White drug users green, Black drug users blue and Mexicans a nice shade of purple.

    I think it would be a great way to determine exactly who as well as how many people are using drugs in our society. Since drug addicts love to conceal their addictions, it might even curb their drug use through public humiliation. Apparently throwing them in prison and tossing the keys in the Sacramento River isn’t working. If nothing else, it sure would make Davis a very colorful city.

  8. Mr Obvious

    [quote]I’m not saying that any of this is harmless, I just think we could find a better way to spend the money that would be more cost-effective and effective. [/quote]

    We already tried this with Prop 36 and drug court. What a miserable failure. Clearly slapping people on the wrist isn’t the answer either. If you could find some evidence that meth doesn’t lead to more crime then I would listen.

  9. E Roberts Musser

    dmg: “Elaine: You can argue against any change in status quo – no matter how bad the status quo is – by suggesting there will be unintended consequences. But at some point you have to take a chance and acknowledge that current policies are not working and are bankrupting this county, this state and this nation.”

    But don’t you think it would be appropriate to think through alternatives first, BEFORE throwing the baby out w the bathwater? All the commenters have made some very telling observations… and you haven’t really addressed any of them…

  10. David M. Greenwald

    The problem with Prop 36 and the drug court is that it is not adequately funded because we are still incarcerating people. Addiction is a lifelong process. People are never free of addiction. I know so many people they go into a program, they do well when they are in the structure of the program, but at some point the program ends. Usually it’s like a six month residential and then a year outpatient program. That’s not going to do anything. Because as soon as they are out of the residential, they start back into the real world. They have their old social structures and habits.

    Drugs laws have not worked at all. Throwing people in jail for drugs just makes them hardened criminals, it doesn’t stop them from being drug addicts. Until you can treat this like the health problem that it is and offer years of help and assistance, drug treatment, training, and life changes, it’s going to fail. Interdiction doesn’t work.

  11. Mr Obvious

    [quote]Until you can treat this like the health problem that it is and offer years of help and assistance, drug treatment, training, and life changes, it’s going to fail.[/quote]

    Years of assistance is there if it’s wanted. There are tons of agencies that will take money if it’s offered. Not to mention that nearly every church offers a free substance abuse group or several churches will join together to form one. The options are there. We can’t force these people to help themselves but the help is offered.

  12. David M. Greenwald

    We can’t force them to help themselves, but what we can do is instead of incarcerating them which does nothing, we can put that money toward treatment.

  13. craised

    [quote]we can put that money toward treatment. [/quote]

    Ok. Where did you hide the money tree? I dont think Moonbead is going to kick down this kind of money.

  14. Neutral

    Too many people believe that locking people in a small concrete enclosure, or in four-stack bunks in large rooms, with inadequate means of ensuring their safety is better than focusing on treatment. It’s easy to lump all substance abuse into a neat little package and cite heinous – and relatively rare – criminal acts to pass ridiculous statutes like ‘three strikes’.

    I wonder if those supporting the existing draconian drug laws feel the same way about an individual who, under the influence of drugs, takes the lives of six young people? Two older people? Does it make a difference to them if the drug is alcohol? In terms of lost work, accidents on the job, and lost productivity, [i]there is no more damaging substance abused than alcohol[/i]. In fact, those losses exceed all losses from all other drug use *combined*. But no matter? It’s ok, it’s just booze?

    What a staggering level of hypocrisy.

  15. E Roberts Musser

    I would make the following observations:
    1) The gov’t too often looks at drug treatment programs as a way to SAVE money – so will not “transfer” ALL the money that would have been used to incarcerate, and give it to drug treatment programs, but a very small portion of it.
    2) If drug treatment needs to be a lifelong commitment on the part of the state, then drug treatment doesn’t begin to look like a cheaper alternative.
    3) As a commenter mentioned, treatment plans are out there, but so often users refuse to take advantage of them, or if they use them it is for only for a short term, just long enough to get them out of jail, but as a long term commitment, it fails as a solution.
    4)If nothing else, jailing drug addicts keeps them off the street so they cannot commit more crimes, including the continued use of illegal drugs. In the case of the cheese thief, he seemed to be an intractable case who could not keep his sticky fingers to himself to save his life.
    5) Unfortunately a lot of those who abuse drugs are doing so to self-medicate for mental illness. So there can be a mental health component that needs to be addressed as well.
    6) There are no easy answers here. But if you use drug and mental health programs as the alternative to incarceration, society has to be willing to fully fund them – which is not likely to happen.
    7) I favor programs that keep youth off drugs in the first place. That is where I would prefer the funding be concentrated and spent. And the push to legalize marijuana, legalizing yet another drug besides alcohol (which has caused all sorts of problems) certainly seems to be a step in the wrong direction.

  16. David M. Greenwald

    Here are a few response:

    1. I agree, if the Gov. looks at drug treatment merely as a way to save money it will not work.

    2. You are forgetting that incarceration is probably more costly by an order of magnitude thus given the recidivism rate it would be interesting to see if in fact lifelong treatment were still not cheaper than incarceration repeatedly.

    The fact is the current system is not alleviating addiction at all.

    3. I’m talking mandated treatment

    4. I suppose, but that’s a very expensive proposition

    5. Then that is something else we need to treat – or should we just imprison mentally ill people?

    6. I agree no easy answers here – but there needs to be a direct tie between savings from prison spending to spending on treatment

    7. Of course.

  17. Don Shor

    Mandated drug treatment doesn’t work. Incarcerating people generally doesn’t stop drug use (inside or outside of prison), although it may provide the impetus some people need to change their drug use. Lifelong drug treatment isn’t a feasible alternative. Mentally ill people shouldn’t be imprisoned in the regular prison system.
    There is no point in criminalizing the possession or use of drugs. The behavior resulting from drug use is already criminalized.

  18. Tecnichick

    Do not make it legal, do not make it illegal. Decriminalize it. That is the answer and it has worked in other countries. Countries that have decriminalized drug use, the problem has taken care of itself and they have less people using.

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