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Attempt to Lower Penalty for Personal-Use Drug Possession Fails

A bill that would have reduced penalties for minor drug offenses did not make it through the California Senate, receiving only about half the needed votes. The bill, supported by organizations including the California ACLU and NAACP, called for making possession of drugs for personal use a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

Advantages of Changing the Law

The proposed legislation would have reduced the potential 3-year jail sentence penalty for possession of small amounts of drugs including marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine to a sentence of a year or less.

Proponents of the bill argued that it would reduce the statewide jail population by 2,000, and, since minorities are disproportionately more likely to be charged with these offenses, they said it would result in a fairer justice system for all. They also believe that harsh felony penalties should be imposed for more serious offenses. Another benefit of changing these minor possession offenses to misdemeanors would be financial, possibly saving the state as much as $64.4 million a year in prosecution and incarceration costs.

Public Support

A poll commissioned by the bill’s supporters found that 70 percent of Californians are in favor of reducing criminal penalties for personal use of drugs. The bill would have brought California into the company of 13 other states that have classified possession of drugs for personal use as a misdemeanor.

Because the legislature did not agree with the majority of Californians polled, however, people charged with a drug crime in the Golden State are still at risk for a felony conviction. Given the failure of the legislature to achieve the legal reclassification, it is especially important to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney when charged when any drug offense, as a conviction can have a significant impact on a person’s life.