Still-Governor Gavin Newsom is ready to flex the empowerment of the voters further vindicating his vision for California during his recall survival, and last night he took the most major criminal justice reform step of the Newsom era since dismantling the San Quentin execution chamber. He signed SB37 into law that ending mandatory minimum prison and jail sentences for nonviolent drug offenses on January 1st 2022. 

The law essentially provides access to more effective treatment options than what the criminal justice system has to offer. This lends to the further argument that maybe some of these people that participated in a victimless crime aren’t actually threats to society that deserve to be caged.

The types of crimes that will be covered in the bill include possessing or agreeing to sell/transport opiates or opium derivatives, possessing or transporting cannabis, planting or cultivating peyote and various crimes relating to forging or altering prescriptions.

While cannabis felonies have dropped from as high as 14,000 in the mid 2010s pre legalization, there are still about a bit over a thousand a year in California. This bill will certainly prevent some of those folks from ending up in the cage. 

Peyote will have an interesting few years ahead of it. It was originally excluded from wider psychedelic decriminalization because there were fears it would lead to drug tourism and threaten the population of peyote in the wild. In addition, indigenous use in spiritual practices was already protected under federal law. As the psychedelic snowball continues to roll down the hill, it’s fair to say that in the years ahead some folks who may have done time over peyote cultivation will not see formerly mandated jail time. 

The bill already has a plethora of support across the House with Assembly Members David Chiu and Buffy Wicks serving as the principal coauthors. Six others have now signed on as coauthors across the Assembly and Senate, doing so before the Senate version of the bill was introduced by Senator Scott Wiener. It reached Newsom’s pen last night, sealing the victory.

“Our prisons and jails are filled with people – particularly from communities of color – who have committed low-level, nonviolent drug offenses and who would be much better served by non-carceral options like probation, rehabilitation and treatment,” said Senator Wiener. “The racist, failed War on Drugs has helped build our system of mass incarceration, and we must dismantle and end its vestiges, which are still in place today. War on Drugs policies are ineffective, inhumane and expensive. SB 73 ends mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses, and gives judges more options to allow people to stay out of jail. It’s an important measure that will help end California’s system of mass incarceration.”

The bill’s big supporters at the Drug Policy Alliance noted it does not change the upper penalties but allows judges the discretion to order probation and community-based services, rather than jail time. The laws originally mandating incarceration for the crimes were written at the peak of the War on Drugs hysteria in the 1980s. 

“We are grateful to Senator Wiener and Assembly Member Carrillo for leading the fight to remove this antiquated and cruel policy that has allowed the drug war to tie judges’ hands for far too long,” said Jeannette Zanipatin, California State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Forcing judges to send people to jail when they honestly believe that they and their communities would be better served with probation or other community services is incredibly counterproductive and fiscally irresponsible. We are thankful the legislature and Governor Newsom have realized this, and are taking these important steps to set things right in California.”

Last year, when the effort around the movement to get SB73 passed started, we reached out to Kevin Ring of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). He was excited to see the big win for his organization in the nation’s largest criminal justice system. 

“Mandatory drug sentences have been an expensive failure,” Ring said. “They’ve separated families unnecessarily without making our communities any safer. Good riddance”

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