Some California lawmakers believe that the state’s drug laws need reform. Arguing that the war on drugs has been costly and ineffective, state Sen. Mark Leno has proposed a bill that would change the punishments for those convicted of possessing drugs for personal use. If the bill passes, California would join 13 other states and the District of Columbia in the trend of reducing drug possession punishments. The bill has the support of several civil liberties and civil rights groups.
Under current California law, possession of narcotic drugs on Schedule III, IV and V — such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine — is a felony. A person convicted of possession of such drugs faces up to three years in prison. Possession of concentrated cannabis and non-narcotic drugs on Schedule III, IV and V can be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine and up to one year of jail time, but it can also be a felony. A felony conviction for possession of those non-narcotic drugs could also result in a three-year prison sentence.
Additionally, those with felony controlled substances convictions must register with local law enforcement within 30 days of becoming a resident.
Senate Bill 1505 would amend the law so that the possession of all drugs for personal use would be a misdemeanor, for which the punishment would be a jail sentence of up to one year. The bill would also exempt these offenses from the registration requirement.
A number of groups have voiced support for the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the California NAACP, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the Drug Policy Alliance.
California voters also seem to support the idea of reducing drug penalties. They passed Proposition 36 in 2000, which allowed some drug offenders to go through treatment rather than go to jail. Additionally, an April 2011 Lake Research Partners poll revealed that 72 percent of respondents supported changing drug possession convictions to misdemeanors.
Those in favor of the bill believe that it would save taxpayers money by reserving prison space for more serious offenders. The bill’s sponsor estimates an annual savings of $160 million. They also believe that more drug addicts will be able to get the help they need if they are not stuck in jail on felony charges, and fewer people will have to deal with the devastating aftermath that a felony conviction can bring, such as difficulties in finding housing and employment after release from prison.