Starting this Saturday, January 1, 2011, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana in California will be a less serious offense, similar to a parking ticket. The fine cannot be more than $100, considerably less than most speeding tickets or running a red light.
The bill, SB 1449, was introduced this year by state Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco). Sen. Leno said the state could no longer afford to go after people who had committed a crime that carries the same punishment as a parking ticket.
Leno estimates California will save tens of millions of dollars every year.
When Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed the bill
, he also mentioned the cost savings. In a typically “political” signing statement, the Governator said he opposes decriminalization of recreational use of marijuana, but “in this time of drastic budget cuts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement and the courts cannot afford to expend limited resources” prosecuting petty pot offenses.
“I think the laws that we passed, they were good,” Gov. Schwarzenegger later said on NBC’s Tonight Show with Jay Leno. “It makes it from a misdemeanor to an infraction, and no one cares if you smoke a joint or not.”
“Gov. Schwarzenegger deserves credit for sparing the state’s taxpayers the cost of prosecuting minor pot offenders,” said Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML
. “Californians increasingly recognize that the war on marijuana is a waste of law enforcement resources.”
The new law is a change in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough, according to Stephen Gutwillig of the Drug Policy Alliance
Young African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately charged with marijuana possession, and the new law will make it harder to track that, according to Gutwillig. “Misdemeanor arrest data is available from the Department of Justice,” Gutwillig said. “But not data on infractions.”
With possession being downgraded to an infraction, it’s going to be more difficult to make major crimes out of selling, distributing or growing marijuana, according to Prop 19 sponsor Richard Lee, founder of Oaksterdam University, an Oakland school that specializes in cannabis education.
Of course, with any relaxation of the marijuana laws, you’re going to have some anti-pot whack job squealing that it’s the end of civilization, and this is no exception. Carla Lowe, founder of “Citizens Against Legalized Marijuana,” claimed the change was the worst new law passed in 2010.
“I believe this has knocked out one of the key pillars of prevention to help kids say we’re not doing drugs,” Lowe said.
While some police groups have predictably criticized the new law, it has gotten support from others in law enforcement.
“I think it’s a good thing because it is calling the offense what it has always been, which is an infraction,” said San Mateo District Attorney Jim Fox.
According to California Attorney General (and Governor-Elect) Jerry Brown, there were about 78,500 marijuana arrests in the state in 2008 and 74,000 in 2007 for felony and misdemeanor related charges.
This marks the first time in 35 years that penalties for non-medical use of marijuana have been reduced in California.
Possession of larger amounts of marijuana, unless covered under California’s medical marijuana law, remains a crime.