Legislation Would Revise Penalty for Simple Drug Possession

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illegal-drugsSenator Mark Leno last  week introduced legislation that would revise the penalty for simple drug possession under the state law, from a felony to a misdemeanor.  It is legislation that follows the lead of 13 other states, as well as the federal government.

The new legislation, according to a release from Senator Leno’s office, SB 1506, does not apply to anyone involved in selling, manufacturing or possessing drugs for sale. 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.

“There is no evidence to suggest that long prison sentences deter or limit people from abusing drugs,” said Senator Leno, D-San Francisco. “In fact, 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.”

SB 1506 will significantly reduce prison and jail spending, allowing local and state government to dedicate resources to probation, drug treatment and mental health services that have proven most effective in reducing crime. It will also help law enforcement rededicate resources to more serious offenders. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates reducing penalties for drug possession will save counties about $159 million annually, in addition to yearly savings for the state totaling $64.4 million.

The bill is co-sponsored by the ACLU of California, Drug Policy Alliance, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the California NAACP.  Under current law, possession of drugs is a felony punishable by up to three years in prison.

“The war on drugs has been an abysmal failure we can no longer afford,” said Allen Hopper, Criminal Justice and Drug Policy Director at the ACLU of California. “California voters agree the punishment should fit the crime, and a felony for simple possession is ridiculous.  Those who are addicted to drugs need treatment, not a jail cell and a felony conviction with severe and life-long consequences, like reduced access to job opportunities, student loans and small business loans.”

Across the country, 13 states, the District of Columbia and federal laws treat drug possession as a misdemeanor. Drug crime is not higher in those states. A statewide poll conducted by Lake Research Partners last year showed that most Californians do not approve of lengthy prison sentences for minor drug possession. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of California voters strongly support the penalty reform proposed in SB 1506.

Others have criticized the proposal.

John Redman, executive director of Californians for Drug Free Youth, said, “It sends a mixed message to our youth that drugs are not a big deal, that taking drugs is not a problem.”

Carla Lowe, founder of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, said, “To have drug possession treated with a slap on the wrist like a ticket is unconscionable.”

But other have pointed out that the current approach is not working, and it is costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

“In fact, the experience of these other states when treating drug possession as a health issue has resulted in better public safety outcomes, which can result in safer communities,” said Senator Leno.

“This is an excellent step toward fixing our broken criminal justice system and making realignment work better,” said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, Senior Policy Advocate with the ACLU of California. “By changing this offense from a felony to misdemeanor, we can still hold individuals accountable for their actions while taking a huge burden off of county jails and protecting access to drug treatment. This will save millions of dollars annually, money that can be invested in schools, health care, and local law enforcement.”

“The California Hawaii State NAACP is excited to work with Senator Leno and the Legislature to roll back the inappropriately punitive approach to drug use and drug addiction,” said Alice A. Huffman, president of the California Hawaii NAACP. “These flawed drug policies mostly target African-American and Latino communities in California and they must be replaced with evidenced-based practices that address the root causes of drug use and abuse in our state and in America.”

In October of 2010, Govenor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law SB 1449 that reduced possession of an ounce or less of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction, with a maximum punishment of a $100 fine.

“I am signing this measure because possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is an infraction in everything but name,” said Governor Schwarzenegger. “The only difference is that because it is a misdemeanor, a criminal defendant is entitled to a jury trial and a defense attorney. In this time of drastic budget cuts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement and the courts cannot afford to expend limited resources prosecuting a crime that carries the same punishment as a traffic ticket.”

That bill was also authored by Senator Mark Leno.

“Marijuana possession has a unique status under current law, as it is the only misdemeanor that is not punishable by any jail time,” said Senator Leno.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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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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14 thoughts on “Legislation Would Revise Penalty for Simple Drug Possession”

  1. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]“There is no evidence to suggest that long prison sentences deter or limit people from abusing drugs,” said Senator Leno, D-San Francisco. “In fact, 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. [/quote]

    If the addicted person is in prison, it is much more difficult for them to have unfettered access to drugs, no? Forced abstention is itself a form of drug treatment, no? So I am not quite seeing the logic of the above statement, assuming drugs are not available in the penal system (and we all know they are, it just is not clear to what extent).

    [quote]SB 1506 will significantly reduce prison and jail spending, allowing local and state government to dedicate resources to probation, drug treatment and mental health services that have proven most effective in reducing crime. It will also help law enforcement rededicate resources to more serious offenders. The Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates reducing penalties for drug possession will save counties about $159 million annually, in addition to yearly savings for the state totaling $64.4 million.[/quote]

    All of this sounds high fallutin’, but isn’t worth the paper it is written on if those financial resources are redirected elsewhere. Any money saved should unequivocally be put towards mental health/drug treatment services. My fear is that this legislation will only put more addicts on the street, with no more commensurate services available than are available now. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to even get addicts into treatment or to avail themselves of mental health services. As the old adage goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink”…

  2. David M. Greenwald

    “If the addicted person is in prison, it is much more difficult for them to have unfettered access to drugs, no? Forced abstention is itself a form of drug treatment, no?”

    There are several problems with your statement:

    1. It is more difficult to get drugs while in prison, but unless you plan to keep people in prison for life, that’s not the solution
    2. Prisons do not have good drug treatment programs
    3. Prisons are very expensive means of drug treatment that are ineffective and cheaper solutions have proven more effective
    4. The reason why people started to use in the first place will reemerge as soon as released from prison
    5. As soon as released from prison – person re-associates with the same group, same lifestyle, start up again

    It is just like so many people I know who go to drug treatment programs for a variety of reasons. When they are in the program it is structured, there is a support network, and a good percentage not all, but decent percentage are able to compete the program and stay sober WHILE THERE.

    But so many people as soon as they are out, revert to old habits, old associates, old environment, the treatment environment does not replicate the real world and at some point they recidivate. Unless prison is followed up with good programs and support networks, merely drying someone out does not solve their addiction – rather it defers it.

  3. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]4. The reason why people started to use in the first place will reemerge as soon as released from prison [/quote]

    You’ve just undermined your own argument. At least they were kept off drugs for the time they were in prison (altho in some prisons this will not be true). Had they not been in prison, it is highly doubtful they would have necessarily sought out any help for their drug habit – hence why they ended up in jail in the first place. Let’s face it, many addicts do not want help for their addictions. You can have all the treatment facilities in the world, but unless the addict wants to kick their habit, they won’t avail themselves of these sorts of services. And many will commit crimes under the influence, bc being under the influence lowers inhibitions…

    I’m not necessarily against lowering possession to a misdemeanor – I’m just not convinced it is going to be the panacea claimed. It could backfire. I’m torn on this one…

  4. rdcanning

    ERM: When I started working for CDCR I was amazed when I met an inmate who drank every day. Now granted, they make their own alcohol and I haven’t heard of inmates growing MJ, but it is VERY easy to get drugs in prison. The prison gangs deal in them all the time and inmates have little problem getting most anything that is on the street. Also, even if they can’t get street drugs, there are always psychiatric medicines which are highly abused in prisons – Seroquel, Wellbutrin – to name a couple.

    As the article notes, prison is not a very effective or cheap treatment for drug abuse/dependence. Mandated treatment programs are quite successful, whether part of something like a drug court or done in prison itself. CDCR does not offer drug treatment as part of mental health treatment and the outside contractors that used to offer services in the prisons have been terminated because of budget cuts.

  5. E Roberts Musser

    To rdcanning: But do you honestly believe that the money “saved” by not sending those in possession of drugs to prison is going to be actually spent on creating the necessary drug programs that ostensibly are needed? I have grave doubts that will ever happen, especially in the current economic climate. If these people keep using inside prison, they clearly have no incentive to stop using if they are outside prison, no? What am I missing here?

  6. David M. Greenwald

    Elaine: What I am describing to you is precisely what I have seen. I’m not undermining any argument. The current system doesn’t work because it doesn’t treat the underlying problem. Prison just at best masks the problem and in a lot of ways it makes it worse because it is more difficult to get a job and become a productive member of society after exiting prison.

  7. rdcanning

    Elaine – What you are missing is that sending these folks to prison is a huge waste of moeny and very, very expensive. In fact, one of the reasons California is in an economic mess is because we spent around $11 billion a year on CDCR. Prison does not address the issues “these people.” As you note, prison does not create the incentive for them to stop – so why put them there? And what I “honestly believe” is that this is a political question about where we want to put our money. Politicians of all ilk have, for the last thirty years, decided that we can solve a lot of our crime problems by building more prisons and criminalizing everybody and their uncle. I suggest you read the article by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker a couple weeks ago – particularly his reporting of the work of criminologist Franklin Zimmering – to get a sense of why mass incarceration does us no good and is not the reason the crime rate has fallen.

  8. 91 Octane

    vanguard: “The bill is co-sponsored by the ACLU of California, Drug Policy Alliance, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the California NAACP.”

    the usual suspects… and all the more reason to reject leno’s bill or view it with suspicion.

    vanguard: “The reason why people started to use in the first place will reemerge as soon as released from prison”

    exactly. an argument for extended incarceration: ie. throwing Mark Lenos bill in the trash.

    rd cannig: “What you are missing is that sending these folks to prison is a huge waste of moeny and very, very expensive.”

    having drug users on the streets committing more crimes is even more expensive… and endangers everyone else…

    The current system doesn’t work because it doesn’t treat the underlying problem.

    And how does mark Leno’s bill Treat the problem? Simply having drug treatment programs does not have promise those who use them truly will be rehabilitated in any shape manner or form…

  9. rdcanning

    Dear 91 Octane: Show us the data that “having drug users on the streets committing more crimes is even more expansive…” than prison. My point is that treatment is less expensive than prison, which is not treatment.

  10. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]My point is that treatment is less expensive than prison, which is not treatment.[/quote]

    But what if there is no treatment? That is the point I am trying to get at. It is important, if there is a desire at true reform, to insist as part of that reform, that any savings accrued from not jailing those in possession of drugs be used to set up the very treatment programs that are needed.

    However, that still is no guarantee that the users will avail themselves of such services. Instead, they may go out and commit crimes under the influence – but then they can be jailed for committing a crime other than possession. But it is possible there will be an uptick in crime when possession is just a misdemeanor – don’t know. Only time will tell…

    Does that make sense, or am I still missing something?

  11. rdcanning

    ERM: The lack of treatment services should not simply be an excuse to lock people up. This is a political question – one for our legislators (and ultimately the public who elects them). Take a look at the realignment funding that was recently sent to the counties (never mind that it was not enough). Some counties put a decent portion (up to 25% ) into treatment related services (mental health, drugs, etc.), others, such as Yolo, put almost none into treatment services (it was 3% if I remember correctly). Instead, they chose to hire deputies and increase funding for jails. Now if they had instead used some of that money for drug court and other diversion services including mandated treatment programs, they might not have needed to hire more deputies for the jail.

    The point of this is that prohibition doesn’t work. Putting people in jail/prison doesn’t lower the crime rate and it doesn’t treat substance abuse. Why would there be an uptick in crime if possession is a misdemeanor? I don’t follow you.

  12. E Roberts Musser

    [quote]Why would there be an uptick in crime if possession is a misdemeanor? I don’t follow you.[/quote]

    Because the one possessing the drugs will be out free to commit crime obviously…

    [quote]Some counties put a decent portion (up to 25% ) into treatment related services (mental health, drugs, etc.), others, such as Yolo, put almost none into treatment services (it was 3% if I remember correctly)[/quote]

    So why didn’t the state give the money back WITH STRINGS ATTACHED, to say it could only go towards drug/mental health programs? I’ll tell you why not – bc the state was foisting its incarceration problem and lack of beds onto the local gov’ts, without the necessary funding to go with it…

  13. rdcanning

    Elaine – I get what you are saying. In response to your second point, I have seen you comment about how the state has underfunded realignment (AB 109) and dumped all the responsibility on the counties for a state problem. I would say it a bit differently (after all, I work for Jerry Brown, not the Board of Supes!) – the counties have a responsibility to use what little money they have been given wisely and not (as Yolo is doing) to replicate the failed “lock ’em up and throw away the key” strategy that has dominated California for 30 years. And it is up to us citizens to go to the Board and complain loud and clearly – using data and the strength of our voices – to get them to resist the temptation. Don Saylor understands how fiscally dangerous their current course of action is and we really need to get them to stop listening to the Sheriff and DA as much as they do.

  14. ved12

    I think how a days people are aware of health issue but I did not understand that why the people are get addicted to drugs. If you ever go to try this then you will definitely get addicted to drugs which are very much harmful for you health. Many drug rehab centers are now open to help such addicted people to cure their addiction and live a healthy life. One of my friend was suffering from Cocaine addiction ([url]http://www.controllingaddiction.net/articles/drug-addiction/cocaine[/url]), but after counseling now he is he from addiction.

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