Should California Cut Drug Possession Penalties to Cut Costs?

California lawmaker Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) has proposed a radical solution to overcrowding in the state’s many prisons and a corrections budget that has skyrocketed in recent years: cut the penalties for simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.

Vocal Speakers on Both Sides of the Debate

This move has some – like John Redman, director of public policy action group Californians for Drug Free Youth – concerned that this move is too radical for even the notoriously “laid back” state. He and Carla Lowe, another anti-drug advocate (and founder of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana) fear that lessened penalties will be viewed by the youth of the state as a free pass to try illicit drugs.

Proponents of the legislation are just as passionate, though. Senator Leno points out that increased penalties for drug-related crimes are doing nothing to deter their use or limit access to them. Just the opposite seems to be true: once someone has spent time in prison for a relatively minor drug possession offense, he or she risks being pigeonholed into a lower-income, lesser-chance-of-success lifestyle where career, housing and educational opportunities are rare.

Representatives of California’s branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, are also in favor of Senator Leno’s legislation. The ACLU views Leno’s proposal as an ideal balance of punitive heft (holding individual offenders accountable for their actions), rehabilitative access (providing opportunities for drug treatment), and fiscal responsibility (freeing up corrections department budgets for more hardened criminals).

Public Support Is Growing

A recent survey conducted by California Tulchin Research finds that a whopping 70 percent of voters surveyed around the state favor a decrease in punishment for possession of small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and other drugs. The poll found that even more – 87 percent – favored lesser punishments for drug-related offenses of all types if the defendant successfully completed a drug treatment program.

If voter support is any indication, there is a good chance that one day Californians will face lesser consequences for simple drug possession crimes. In the meantime, though, California takes all drug possession cases very seriously, punishing many of them with hefty fines and long jail sentences, so it is important that they be vigorously defended against. If you or a loved one is facing a California drug possession charge, contact a skilled criminal defense attorney in your area to learn more about protecting your legal rights.