Pubdate: Tue, 20 Oct 2009
Source: Capitol Weekly (Sacramento, CA)
Copyright: 2009 Capitol Weekly Group
Author: F. Aaron Smith


Among the many hard questions faced by legislators under the current 
budget mandate to cut $1.2 billion in corrections spending, there's 
at least one easy answer: release non-violent marijuana offenders and 
reform penalties for some marijuana offenses.

Patching the hole in our prison budget is going to require much more 
than early release programs. Serious sentencing reforms are 
inevitable, especially considering the looming court order to reduce 
the inmate population by 27 percent.

With dangerously overcrowded prisons, Californians can no longer 
afford to waste valuable cell space - not to mention the annual per- 
inmate cost of $49,000 - on non-violent marijuana offenders. If you 
think this conclusion is way too obvious to merit the column-inches 
in this publication, you might be surprised to know who didn't 
include marijuana sentencing reform in his list of prison cuts.

Incredibly, early reports of the Gov. Schwarzenegger's forthcoming 
proposal to trim the prison budget suggest he would rather reduce 
penalties for crimes like auto theft, receiving stolen property, or 
writing bad checks than for offenders charged with growing even a 
single marijuana plant or selling a joint. The governor's plan would 
change some property crimes that are currently charged as felonies to 
misdemeanors, but, bizarrely, leave felony penalties for victimless 
marijuana offenses intact.

Ironically, Gov. Schwarzenegger recently dismissed the idea of taxing 
and regulating marijuana as not being worth the $1.4 billion in new 
revenue it would bring to the state, but now he's trying to tell us 
that reducing penalties for car thieves is a perfectly fine way to 
save a few bucks. No wonder confidence in state government is at a 
record low in California.

Although the state "decriminalized" marijuana possession over 30 
years ago and most of the state's voters now support taxing and 
regulating marijuana sales, it remains a felony to grow even one 
plant or sell a single joint in California. According to the 
Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 1,538 marijuana 
offenders are housed in California's jam-packed prisons. This figure 
does not include the undoubtedly larger number of inmates returned to 
prison on marijuana- related parole violations, such as testing 
positive for marijuana.

It's time for the legislature to show common sense and include non- 
violent marijuana offenses in the inevitable sentencing reform package.

Currently, marijuana cultivation, possession for sale, and 
transportation - of even for the smallest amounts - are always 
treated as felonies. A smart reform would be to allow district 
attorneys discretion to prosecute these offenses as either felonies 
or misdemeanors. This way, the person who sells a gram of marijuana 
to his neighbor doesn't end up in the state corrections system along 
side dangerous criminals.

Lawmakers should also finally act on a seven-year-old suggestion from 
the Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) by reducing penalties for 
simple possession of hashish (concentrated marijuana resin) from a 
felony to a misdemeanor. The LAO's 2002 report estimated that this 
simple change would save the state $4.8 million. Possession of 
marijuana is already treated as a misdemeanor -- there's no good 
reason why possessing hashish, which is equivalent to marijuana in 
terms of associated risks, shouldn't be treated equally under the law.

Amending the marijuana laws is not only one of the better prison 
reform options in terms of public safety, it would also be safe 
politically. Nobody in their right mind wants the law to go easier on 
a car thief than a person who grows a marijuana plant in his or her 
backyard. And polling indicates that most Californians want marijuana 
legal these days, anyway.

We clearly cannot afford to lock up everyone who grows or sells 
marijuana - especially when we could be controlling its sales through 
regulations akin to those imposed on alcohol vendors and using the 
tax revenues to pay for enforcement.

Reforming penalties for victimless marijuana offenses is a good idea 
in terms of the immediate prison fix, but a substantial overhaul of 
our corrections system is still needed to address the bigger problems 
our state faces. Lawmakers should support legally taxing and 
regulating marijuana as part of a long-term plan to solve 
California's criminal justice crisis.

More than 100 million Americans - including our own governor - have 
used marijuana and led perfectly functional, productive lives. It's 
about time our elected leaders produce a functional marijuana policy 
in California.