A New Push To Reduce Drug Possession Penalties
A San Francisco Democrat is making another push to reduce criminal penalties for small-scale drug possession.
Senator Mark Leno’s new bill would give prosecutors the option of charging people with a misdemeanor instead of a felony for possessing small amounts of cocaine, heroin and other drugs. Leno said the smaller penalties would save government time and money – and wouldn’t derail people’s future.
“Likely any hope or dream of a higher education, with a felony, is gone," Leno said. "And in a down-economy, of course, you'd be lucky with a felony on your record to get a minimum-wage paying job."
Leno authored a similar bill last session, which the Senate voted down by a nearly two-to-one margin. The legislation faced opposition from law enforcement groups because it mandated that low-level drug possession be treated as a misdemeanor, rather than a felony.
Leno said the new bill gives prosecutors the option of charging violators at either level. “It gives local control to district attorneys to use their best judgment,” he said. “We think this could be a winning formula.”
The California District Attorneys Association isn’t so sure. Legislative Director Cory Salzillo said the group hasn’t taken an official position on the bill yet, but “given both options, this year's is a better option,” due to the flexibility it provides prosecutors.
Still, Salzillo said, “I don’t know if [Leno’s new bill] addresses all our concerns." Chief among them, he said, is a message that drug use isn’t a serious problem. “Drug addictions destroy lives and families, and damage society,” Salzillo said. "And minimizing the consequences of those behaviors doesn’t make it any less addictive or destructive.”
In 2010, California reduced penalties for small-scale marijuana possession to the equivalent of a speeding ticket, and Leno is announcing his new bill on a day when a Field Poll shows relatively strong support – 54 percent -- for the legalization of marijuana.
Leno calls California’s current drug laws “confusing” and “confounding.”
“If you're caught using any of the drugs we're talking about - using is a misdemeanor," he said. "But if you're caught and charged with possession, it's a felony.”
The maximum penalty for a misdemeanor is a year in county prison.