Marijuana Criminal Penalty Reduction Bill Progressing in California

A bill that would reduce criminal penalties in criminal drug possession cases in California – thereby helping to reduce overcrowding in both the state jails and prisons – has passed its first hurdle in the Senate Public Safety Committee.
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Our Los Angeles marijuana lawyers understand that Senate Bill 649 is now poised for a full vote on the Senate floor.

Previous similar legislation – specifically, SB 1506 – has sputtered out in the Senate. But this time, it may be different, for the simple fact that the California governor and other public officials were recently given less than a month to address the inmate overcrowding issue in California, they will face legal action – including contempt of court.

The state has 33 prisons, and many of those are filled with individuals who have been arrested or convicted of minor drug offenses – the majority of those involving marijuana.

A report released earlier this month by the Department of Corrections reveals that the state is currently housing nearly 120,000 inmates, which is about 150 percent of what those facilities were designed to hold.

A three-judge federal panel has ordered that the percentage has to be slashed to 137 percent by the end of the year. That’s about 9.500 inmates that need to be freed by December.

Gov. Jerry Brown had requested those terms be softened, but the panel said not only has Brown done nothing to comply with the orders of the panel, his administration has openly defied it.

SB 649 could be one way for state leaders to show a good-faith effort. The measure will specifically help to roll back Brown’s 2011 Public Safety Realignment that resulted in an uptick of state prisoners in the first place.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and co-sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Drug Policy Alliance, the William C. Velasquez Institute, the California Public Defenders Association and the Californians for Safety and Justice and Friends Committee on Legislation.

SB 649 would not apply to those charged with manufacturing, selling or possessing drugs for sale. What it would do is reduce penalties for possession of any controlled substance without a prescription from a potential felony to a misdemeanor, punishable by only up to a on year in jail. It would also make the maximum fine $70 – as opposed to the $1,000 it would have been if the charge were a felony. Additionally, the court would be required to take into consideration a defendant’s ability to pay.

There are 13 other states, as well as the District of Columbia and even the federal courts that treat drug possession as a misdemeanor. Drug crimes are no higher there than anywhere else.

This kind of drug sentencing reform is supported by two-thirds of Californians, according to a poll conducted by Tulchin Research last year.

Having recently cleared the committee by a vote of 4-2, the measure is expected to go fora full Senate floor vote next month.

The Los Angeles CANNABIS LAW Group represents growers, dispensaries, collectives, patients and those facing marijuana charges. Call us at 714-937-2050.

Additional Resources:
California Bill to Reduce Penalty for Simple Drug Possession Clears Committee, April 24, 2013, By Drug Policy Alliance, The Daily Chronic
More Blog Entries:
Los Angeles Marijuana Dispensary Owner Pleads Guilty to Federal Charges, April 19, 2013, Los Angeles Marijuana Lawyer Blog