A better process for setting marijuana possession penalties in California

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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

9 thoughts on “A better process for setting marijuana possession penalties in California”

  1. I suggest that, instead of keeping marijuana possession illegal, whether as a misdemeanor or an infraction, we make broccoli illegal. At least there would be a victim of that crime, for broccoli causes flatulence, the smell and sound of which can be annoying to people in the vicinity of the offender.

  2. And who produces and sells this marijuana under Mark Leno's bill? Since that part remains criminal, it's ceded to the criminals (either to grow in national parks, or to import from the murderous cartels in Mexico).

    And with the fine infraction for small possession, you still have the police able to shake down every brown person in the cities under the cover of marijuana possession laws.

    Sure, it's a minor improvement, but it doesn't get to the heart of the prohibition problem like Proposition 19 does. Sure, part of the marketing of Prop 19 has been economic value, but that doesn't meant that it's the whole value of the Proposition. The real value is taking the first step in the dismantling of prohibition itself – a step that must happen if we're going to ever hope to reverse all the damage that's been caused.

  3. I'm having a little difficulty understanding your objections to Prop 19, and your remarks in the previous item don't do much to enlighten me.

    The personal use provisions seem to be pretty close to what you've advocated yourself. And the commercial production and tax provisions are going to be a dead letter for just the reasons you describe. Your big objection seems to be that people will vote for Prop 19 under the impression that the commercial production part of it will be real and that taxes will be collected.

    I don't agree that CA will automatically become the nation's potbasket under P19. The 25 sq. ft. limit on personal production space seems pretty tight for any but the smallest-scale cottage industry commercial grow, so the incentives for the cops to find big grows and refer them for federal busts won't go away. I can't see how 10,000 cottage industry grows will support commerce in the kind of quantities that would make CA the pot supplier for the US. Nobody is going to want to deal with 50 small growers to put together 100 lb. to take to Chicago, are they?

    Looking at life under P19 vs. the current situation (or even the current situation as modified by SB 1449), I have a hard time not seeing an improvement. Sure it's being sold under somewhat false pretenses, but at least it will let the air out of the current medical recommendation racket.

  4. why do you feel the need to punish people at all? It serves no purpose and is a waste of money. One of the ways our government works is to have the states act as a test bed for public policy. this is that at work.

  5. Yes, that is the question, isn't it? Some people need drugs. Why inflict additional pain in an attempt – mostly futile as it is – to deny them what they need, rather than takes steps to mitigate any potential resulting harm? Like providing free taxi service for the driving-impaired, that sort of thing. Maybe free video games and porn, given that stoners who are kept occupied tend to stay out of trouble.

    It's got to be a lot cheaper than what we're doing now.

  6. The main offense to society caused by Marijuana is that the drug allows people to perceive beyond the bounds of consensus reality; when a person is high they see things differently, and this often brings a sense of greater freedom (which I believe it actually is). Those who want to keep it illegal are those who believe they have the right and wisdom to colonize other peoples' minds by controlling their access to opportunities to perceive non-consensus reality. It can be argued that the fundamental goal of criminalization of Marijuana and other psychedelics is to protect society's capacity to function cohesively, through preserving broad consensus on what is real. That's a reasonable goal… except: our consensus reality has revealed itself to be a non-sustainable set of interlocking illusions, memes that carry the seeds of environmental destruction. Chief among these illusions is that we are somehow separate from, and superior to, the natural world. Our sense of "I" stops at the boundaries of our skin, and we have built a culture that services this egocentric way of perceiving. Marijuana awakens the soul-centric perception of connectedness, and delight in that connectedness.

    Having said that, my own opinion is that Marijuana serves the purpose of awakening best when used very occasionally, preferably in natural settings. But…that is my opinion, and it gives me no right whatsoever to insist that people use it in the way that works for me.

    I worked for two decades in the drug abuse prevention field. It was obvious to me and many of my colleagues that the War on Drugs is fundamentally destructive. The very logic of "You are using a harmful drug so we're going to lock you up with a bunch of criminals—to protect you from yourself" is an obvious absurdity. The fueling of vast networks of criminal enterprises, and the attendant mayhem that results, as a result of prohibition, is another obvious absurdity. But most offensive to me are those who feel they know better than I how I should manage my own mind; and it enrages me to know that there are those who would completely remove my freedom to punish me for exercising my curiosity about non-ordinary states of consciousness.

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