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State Senate votes down bill to lower penalties for drug possession

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Kenneth Nersten/Flickr

A pile of Suboxone pills, a type of medicine used to treat heroine addicts.

The vote wasn't very close: 24 against, 11 in favor of reducing possession of small amounts of illegal drugs like cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamines from a felony to a misdemeanor. The State Senate killed a bill Thursday that would have put California in the company of 14 other states that've rolled back laws that strictly penalize drug users. Under the bill, SB 1506 authored by Senator Mark Leno, simple drug possession would have still carried the option of jail time, but it would have removed the lifelong stigma of a felony conviction.

Instead, the current laws will stay the same, which means under state law:

  • Heroin, cocaine, or crack cocaine possession is a felony punishable by incarceration in a county jail for 16 months to 3 years;
  • Unlawful possession of methaqualone (Quaaludes), gamma hydroxybutyric acid (Extacy), methamphetamines, or concentrated cannabis can be a misdemeanor (punishable by no more than one year in a county jail) or a felony (16 months to 3 years in jail);
  • Possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is an infraction (which means not a criminal matter).

Generally, the tide of drug criminalization has turned towards tolerance. According to Margaret Dooley-Sammuli of the ACLU of Southern California, for a brief period in California, drug possession carried the sentence of anywhere from 5 years to life in prison, depending on prior convictions. Once in prison, indeterminate sentencing laws gave parole boards wide discretion as to how much time any given offender would serve.

In the early 1970's, the current penalties for heroin and cocaine were set. Meth, which originated as a prescription drug, was classified slightly lower in terms of penalties. 

Since then, Californians have enacted several laws that move towards treating drug use less harshly: the Compassionate Use Act (1996) legalized medical marijuana; Proposition 36 (2000) gives first-time drug possession offenders the option of substance abuse treatment instead of incarceration; and in 2010, the legislature decriminalized possession of small amounts of recreational marijuana.

Also in 2010, however, a ballot initiative that would have legalized recreational marijuana failed to pass. Thursday's defeat of SB 1506 is another blow to those looking to end the War on Drugs.

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