Although I have made clear my opposition to Proposition 19, I find something admirable about a different ongoing effort to change marijuana law in California. California Senate Bill 1449, introduced by Senator Mark Leno, defines possession of an ounce or less of marijuana as an “infraction” warranting a fine of up to $100 and no jail time. Technically, that’s what the punishment has been for many years, except that marijuana possession is formally defined as a misdemeanor under current law, which brings judges and courtrooms into the picture. The proposed law, which will lead marijuana possession offenses to be handled much like speeding tickets, has already cleared the Senate and is out of committee in the Assembly.
I don’t know if the end law will be a good one because the amendment process is still underway, neither do I think its effect is entirely predictable. Laws changing marijuana penalties can have unexpected effects, depending on how law enforcement on the street respond (e.g., net widening when police see a penalty as slight, more selective enforcement if police see a penalty as too tough). But whatever happens de jure and de facto, the process by which this legislation is being developed and deliberated deserves praise for two reasons.
First, going at least as far back as the disastrous property tax revolt initiative (Prop 13), the state legislature has repeatedly kicked political hot potatoes into the initiative process instead of having the courage to govern. This takes critical policy debates out of the deliberative process and into one where bad reasoning, volatile emotions and misunderstanding are the norm. In this case though, our elected leaders in Sacramento are acting like elected leaders and try to legislate, so good on them.
Second, the legislators are being realistic about what is and is not possible within the framework of the federal Controlled Substances Act. By endorsing legalization, Proposition 19 inherently provokes a confrontation with the federal government if it passes, a situation which I think will not end well for California (see Mark Kleiman and Eric Sterling‘s latest posts for other perspectives). What the progress of S.B. 1449 shows is that a state can change marijuana possession penalties without making a federal case out of it, so to speak.