Cocaine in Your Pocket? Could Be a Simple Misdemeanor Under Mark Leno's Proposal

See clarification at the bottom.

State Sen. Mark Leno wants to do for cocaine, ecstasy and meth what he did for marijuana.

That is, make possession of small amounts basically a ticket-worthy offense -- a misdemeanor.

Some of you are no doubt cheering. Leno this week announced that he introduced a bill, SB 649, that would allow prosecutors ...

" ... the flexibility to charge low-level, nonviolent drug offenses as misdemeanors instead of felonies," Leno's office says in a statement.

The bill also would allow judges to weigh in and reduce felony possession cases to misdemeanors.

It would apply to nonviolent suspects accused of holding small amounts not for distribution, according to Leno's office. It would not cover people involved in the making or selling of drugs.

The state prison system is so overcrowded that California is under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling mandating a reduction in the number of inmates behind bars.

Leno says this is one way that can be achieved without really affecting true crime on our streets (at least in theory):

If we want safer communities, our collective goal for low-level drug offenders should be helping to ensure that they get the rehabilitation they need to successfully re-enter their communities. Instead, we sentence them to long terms, offer them no treatment while incarcerated and release them back into our communities with few job prospects. This proposal gives prosecutors the option to reduce penalties so counties can reinvest in proven alternatives that would benefit minor offenders and save limited jail space for serious criminals.

The bill, backed by the ACLU, the Drug Policy Alliance and the NAACP, could save counties across the state $159 million in prosecution and incarceration costs, Leno's office says.

The bill will start running through the legislative hoops starting in spring. Support it? Make your voice count.

[Clarification, added at 1:40 p.m.]: Leno's office asked that we clarify a few things we got wrong as a result of a statement from his office that was light on details.

Here's the deal:

The law would not exactly do for cocaine what Leno did for marijuana. In that case marijuana possession could really be treated as an infraction, or a ticketable offense.

The new proposal would make possession of a small amount of cocaine a possible misdemeanor, which is different. (That's less than a felony, but not exactly a ticket.)

Also, meth and ecstasy apparently are already treated that way -- that is, they can be misdemeanors as well.

Prosecutors and lawmakers call these kinds of cases "wobblers." Under the law they can go either way -- misdemeanor or felony.

Leno's proposal would bring cocaine and heroin in line with ecstasy and meth.

[@dennisjromero / djromero@laweekly.com / @LAWeeklyNews]


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