The “No on 19” forces are now claiming that the initiative’s legalization of cannabis possession doesn’t much matter, since it has already been decriminalized. That’s not necessarily so.
While the commercial-production provisions of Proposition 19 will face legal challenges, the provision the legalization of the possession of less than an ounce of cannabis will not. Possession would remain a federal offense, but Californians not on federal land would be virtually immune from any legal penalty. The same applies to the cultivation of a 5’x5′ plot for personal use.
Even most supporters of cannabis prohibition can’t work up much enthusiasm about arresting people for just using pot. It’s been fairly amusing to hear the loud insistence of law-enforcement opponents of Prop. 19 that they’re not really enforcing the possession law now, as if keeping an unenforced law on the books were a feature rather than a bug.
The Gubernator just signed a decriminalization bill. Under the new law, possession of up to an ounce of cannabis is an infraction – like overstaying your time at a parking meter – rather than a misdemeanor. It will result in a ticket, rather than a custodial arrest, and a maximum fine of $100, and no criminal record will be generated.
Does this mean less hassle for pot users? Not necessarily: it depends on the behavior of local police, and therefore may vary from one jurisdiction to the next.
Possession arrests are already infrequent, except in connection with other offenses. But that’s partly because a custodial arrest is a fairly expensive process from the viewpoint of the criminal justice system. By contrast, writing tickets is cheap: probably a source of net revenue. In one of the Australian states, decriminalization actually increased the number of cannabis possessors going to jail; there were far more tickets than there had been arrests, and some of the people getting the tickets didn’t pay the fine and went to jail for that.
I continue to think that legalization of possession and production for personal use – and, I would add, production by small consumer-owned co-operatives – is the right way to manage cannabis: it would largely eliminate the (large) black market as well as cannabis-related law enforcement without creating a large industry devoted to promoting and sustaining drug abuse. (People who use drugs but do not abuse them do not spend enough to be valuable customers.) So if I were sure that the courts would forbid California’s counties and municipalities from licensing growing and retailing under Prop. 19, I would regard the resulting situation as close to optimal. But getting there by passing a law that the courts later strike down is rather a Rube Goldberg approach to what ought to be a rather straightforward issue.
Footnote In writing (and speaking) so much about Prop. 19, I’m following my judgement about what people are interested in rather than my judgement about the significance of the issue. In my view, no change in cannabis policy could match the importance of reducing hard-drug use by felons under community supervision via HOPE-style supervision, or reducing violence in Mexico and undercutting the Taliban in Afghanistan by ending the attempt to solve our national drug-consumption problem abroad.