State Senator Mark Leno Seeks to Lessen Drug Penalties (CA Senate Bill 649)

For years, there’s been a good bit of debate in California as to how far the state should go in lessening penalties for possession of illegal drugs (CA Penal Code 11350).  As of now, possession of any amount in the state ends with a felony arrest, even though most persons accused of the crime end up being sentenced to time in treatment facilities as opposed to spending time in jail due to the previous Prop 36 (a ballot measure passed in 2000).

However, California is still behind the times when it comes to making drug possession a misdemeanor, 13 other states have already made this move and the consequences have been truly amazing.  These states seem to have lower rates of violent crime, drug use, and higher than average rates of participation in drug treatment programs.  Senate Bill 649 (headed up by State Senator Mark Leno) would make possession of certain illegal drugs a “wobbler,” giving prosecutors the option to charge persons with either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the circumstances.  Another potential benefit for passage of the bill is that it will continue to mean more space in county jails while keeping the crime rate officially down.

There’s still one sticking point, California District Attorney’s Association opposes the bill, citing the fact that if the bill were to pass at the Assembly level, there would be no incentive for plaintiffs in drug-related cases to ever plead guilty and, therefore, miss out on what they believe are important opportunities for offenders to receive drug counseling and treatment.  Importantly, the San Francisco district attorney argues that the bill doesn’t go far enough to protect individuals.  He would rather the decision as to whether to prosecute this “wobbler” not be in the hands of prosecutors, but be made a misdemeanor outright.  The upcoming Assembly vote will determine SB649’s fate.