California Reduces Its Penalty for Marijuana

October 1. 2010 – SAN FRANCISCO — A month before California voters decide the fate of a ballot initiative that would legalize marijuana, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed a bill that essentially puts those caught possessing small amounts of the drug on the same level as those caught speeding on the freeway.

The governor — who has come out against the ballot measure, Proposition 19 — cast the new law’s effect as largely administrative, changing the crime of possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction, the lowest level of offense under state law.

And like everything else in a state struggling with a $19 billion deficit, money mattered, too.

“The only difference is that because it is a misdemeanor, a criminal defendant is entitled to a jury trial,” Mr. Schwarzenegger said in a statement that accompanied his signature. “In this time of drastic budget cuts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement and the courts cannot afford to expend limited resources prosecuting a crime that carries the same punishment as a traffic ticket.”

Under the law, SB 1449, possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is punishable by a $100 fine. But offenders would not be arrested or risk having a criminal record, something that drug legalization groups applauded on Friday.

Stephen Gutwillig, the California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a group based in New York that advocates for drug law reform, said the law could be particularly meaningful for black men, who have been found to be arrested for possession at far higher rates than white men.

“It’s important because it ends an epidemic of race-based targeting of misdemeanor marijuana arrests in California,” Mr. Gutwillig said.

About a dozen states have softened their stance on marijuana over the years, including Massachusetts, where voters passed a ballot initiative in 2008 that made possession of less than one ounce a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine. (Minors also have to take a drug awareness class.)

In his signing statement, Mr. Schwarzenegger was firm in his opposition to Proposition 19, which would legalize, tax and regulate the use of marijuana for those over 21, calling the measure “deeply flawed.”

But as is the case with so many other things in California, where the governor’s approval ratings are at rock bottom, many voters might not see things his way. A Field Poll released on Sunday found that 49 percent of voters approved of Proposition 19, with 42 percent against.

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