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California Considering Reducing Drug Possession Penalties
California lawmakers are considering legislation that would make California the 14th state in the U.S. to downgrade the severity of drug possession offenses to misdemeanors rather than felonies.

California lawmakers are considering legislation that would make California the 14th state in the U.S. to downgrade the severity of drug possession offenses. Believing the war on drugs has been costly and ineffective, state Sen. Mark Leno has introduced SB 1506, a bill to reduce the penalties for drug possession convictions. Many groups support the bill, including California Senate Public Safety Committee, which voted to advance the bill to the full Senate for a vote, pointing to cost savings to the state and increased treatment opportunities for offenders as benefits.

Changes to Current Law

Possession of narcotic drugs on Schedule III, IV or V, such as cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine is a felony in California, punishable by up to three years in prison. Possession of non-narcotic drugs on Schedule III, IV or V can also be charged as a felony in California, also punishable by up to three years in prison. In addition to serving prison sentences, after their release those with felony drug convictions need to register with local law enforcement within 30 days of becoming residents, as well.

SB 1506 would change the law so that possession of all drugs for personal use would be a misdemeanor, with a punishment of up to one year in jail. SB 1506 would also exempt people with possession convictions on their records from the registration requirement.

Support From Many Groups

The bill has backing from many groups around the state, including the California NAACP, the ACLU of California, several drug treatment groups and other human rights groups. California voters seem to be supportive of the idea of lowering penalties for drug possession, as well. An April 2011 survey conducted by Lake Partners revealed 72 percent of respondents favored reducing drug possession convictions to misdemeanors. California voters also passed Proposition 36 in 2000, allowing some drug offenders to seek treatment rather than go to jail.

Benefits to the State

Supporters of the measure believe the change would save the state a significant amount of money because prison space would be reserved for more serious crimes, rather than non-violent drug offenders. Sen. Leno estimates that the bill will save the state $160 million annually.

Additionally, the bill’s proponents argue those convicted of possession would have more opportunities to seek treatment if they are not in prison for as long, which would be better for the state. Furthermore, people with possession convictions would not have to deal with the problems finding work and housing that accompany having a felony conviction, and they would have more opportunities to thrive — creating a healthier economic environment in the state.

Keywords: drug possession
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