Sacramento — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed SB 1449 (Leno), which lowers the penalty for personal possession of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction. This long-awaited reform makes low-level marijuana possession a fineable offense, rather than a misdemeanor, the penalty since 1975 when the offense was reduced from a felony. The Governor’s action occurs as California voters begin to cast early ballots deciding the fate of Proposition 19, the marijuana legalization initiative.
“Sacramento finished what it started 35 years ago – lowering the penalties for personal marijuana possession to those of a traffic ticket,” said Stephen Gutwillig, California director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “The voters, however, are already poised to take the next step, adopting Prop. 19 to eliminate all penalties for personal possession and begin to bring this state’s unregulated $14 billion underground marijuana market under the rule of law once and for all.”
When California lowered the penalty for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana in 1975 from a felony to a misdemeanor, it became the one misdemeanor in the state punishable only by a $100 fine and not jail time. As a result, people found in possession of a small quantity of marijuana have been formally subjected to arrest, a court appearance, and a permanent drug arrest record. In addition, this anomalous situation wasted millions of dollars of court resources providing jury trials accorded to misdemeanor defendants.
Law enforcement officials routinely diminish the significance and scale of misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests. In fact those arrests have tripled since 1990, from about 20,000 to more than 61,000 last year, while arrest rates for all other drug possession offenses have decreased markedly (as have arrest rates in general). Chilling racial disparities lie at the heart of that remarkable escalation. On average, African Americans in California have triple the likelihood of being arrested for personal marijuana possession even though young blacks consume marijuana at lower levels than young whites. The arrest disparities are a statewide phenomenon with some jurisdictions arresting blacks at 10 or more times the rate of whites.
“Gov. Schwarzenegger has ended the epidemic of mass arrests for petty marijuana possession, which so chillingly target young people of color across California,” said Gutwillig. “Though the consequences to them will be far less damaging, black and brown communities will likely remain the focus of law enforcement scrutiny for this new infraction. Tens of thousands will still be detained, cited, and their personal data collected, just for possessing a small amount of marijuana. Making marijuana an infraction will not, in of itself, stop the waste of limited police resources or the pattern of racial profiling that typifies the war on marijuana.”