California senator seeks to make possession of meth, heroin, cocaine, other drugs a misdemeanor

US Coast Guard crew members offload pounds of cocaine in Miami Beach, Florida, in 2011
US Coast Guard crew members offload pounds of cocaine in Miami Beach, Florida, in 2011
AFP/Getty Images/File, Joe Raedle

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Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) has introduced a bill that would make possession of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

If SB 1506 passes, California will join 13 other states who have similar laws.

Leno’s bill would set a maximum penalty of one year in a county jail, reversing current laws which set the maximum penalty at three years in a state prison.

“There is no evidence to suggest that long prison sentences deter or limit people from abusing drugs,” said Leno in a statement. “In fact, time behind bars and felony records often have horrible unintended consequences for people trying to overcome addiction because they are unlikely to receive drug treatment in prison and have few job prospects and educational opportunities when they leave.”

Plus, he says, locking folks up for possession makes a bad overcrowding situation worse.

“The real crime is the law that treats drug possession for personal use as a felony,” said Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance in a press release. “Sen. Leno’s bill aspires to a more civilized society in which citizens are spared the stigma of a felony conviction, and in which taxpayers are spared the indignity and waste of $2 billion over the next ten years.”

The bill is cosponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance, the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Critics say this sends the wrong message to young people.

John Redman, executive director of Californians for Drug Free Youth, told the Los Angeles Times that the proposal "sends a mixed message to our youth that drugs are not a big deal, that taking drugs is not a problem."