Smoke a joint, go to jail?

Not too much anymore. Not in California. In 2010, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a law making possession of less than an ounce of weed a ticket-worthy infraction.

Now State Sen. Mark Leno's bill, which would allow non-violent drug possession cases to be tried as misdemeanors, pass the state assembly this week:

The law would expand the lax stance on having a little in your pocket (so long as you're not a violent felon) to other drugs.

It follows a momentous announcement last month by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who informed federal prosecutors to back off on prosecuting small-time drug crimes to the fullest. According to Holder:

… Certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences.

Holder railed against heavy-handed sentencing that has given hard time to low-level drug users, who are often minorities, filling our prisons and making ours one of the world's most-imprisoned populations.

Lynne Lyman, California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, was psyched over the bill's passage:

Noting that lengthy prison terms do not seem to be the best approach for drug users, or for California's budget, I was heartened to see some Assembly Republicans standing in favor, or at least not opposed, to this common-sense solution.

Leno's law brings that emotion to California. It's headed for Gov. Jerry Brown's signature. According to the lawmaker's office:

If signed by the governor, SB 649, the Local Control in Sentencing Act, will significantly reduce jail spending and allow local governments to dedicate resources to probation, drug treatment and mental health services that have proven most effective in reducing crime. It will also help law enforcement rededicate resources to more serious offenders. The Legislative Analyst's Office estimates reducing penalties for drug possession will save counties about $159 million annually.

Leno himself says:

We know we can reduce crime by offering low-level offenders rehabilitation and the opportunity to successfully reenter their communities, but we are currently doing the opposite. We give non-violent drug offenders long terms, offer them no treatment while they're incarcerated, and then release them back into the community with few job prospects or options to receive an education. SB 649 gives local governments the flexibility to choose reduced penalties so that they can reinvest in proven alternatives that benefit minor offenders and reserve limited jail space for serious criminals.


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