Pubdate: Sun, 7 Nov 2010
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Column: Net Worth
Page: D - 1
Copyright: 2010 Hearst Communications Inc.
Author: Kathleen Pender
Bookmark: (Cannabis - California)


California pot smokers can breathe a little easier next year. Under a 
state law that takes effect Jan. 1, possession of less than an ounce 
of marijuana will be an infraction punishable by a $100 fine. Today 
it is a misdemeanor punishable by a $100 fine.

The new law does not go as far as Proposition 19, which voters 
rejected Tuesday. That would have legalized possession of less than 1 
ounce of marijuana for personal use by anyone 21 or older in California.

Under the law passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, 
SB1449, possession of less than an ounce will no longer be a 
misdemeanor or go on a person's criminal record. Instead, it will be 
an infraction, similar to a speeding ticket. That has some people 
wondering whether the infraction will go on a person's driving record 
and affect insurance rates.

Here are answers to these and other questions about how the new law 
will affect employment applications and federal student financial 
aid. These questions assume the person does not have a legitimate 
medical marijuana card.

Q: If I get caught with less than an ounce, what's the worst that will happen?

A: Assuming you are not driving under the influence or on school 
property, you could be convicted of an infraction and subject to a 
$100 fine. If you don't want to contest it, you will sign the 
citation and send in the money. (Possession of less than an ounce on 
the grounds of a K-12 school during school hours is still a 
misdemeanor and subject to stiffer penalties.)

Q: Can I fight it?

A: Yes, you can ask for a trial before a judge, but you cannot ask 
for a jury trial or a court-appointed attorney, like you can today.

"Defendants in misdemeanor cases are entitled to jury trials," which 
can cost the public $1,000, says the bill's sponsor, Sen. Mark Leno, 
D-San Francisco. "We were spending tens of millions of dollars each 
year on jury trials, clogging courts for simple possession cases."

The new law could make it harder to get charges dismissed.

"The way it was before, in most counties, if you insisted on a jury 
trial they would likely dismiss the case rather than tie up the 
courtroom for something where you would get a $100 fine. In that 
sense, you won't have that option any more," says William Panzer, an 
Oakland attorney who is on the board of the National Organization for 
the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Q: I've heard the new law will make possession of less than an ounce 
like a traffic ticket. Does that mean it will go on my driving 
record? Will it affect my insurance rates?

A: Assuming you are not driving while stoned, the answer to both 
questions is no.

Possession alone is not a motor vehicle offense and will not go on 
your driving record today or when the new law takes effect. It is not 
one of the factors insurance companies in California can use to set rates.

"By itself, a pot-related citation that does not go on DMV records 
cannot be used to determine your rates," says Molly DeFrank of the 
state insurance department.

However, driving under the influence of marijuana is a serious 
offense. If convicted, it will go on your DMV and criminal record and 
increase your insurance rates. The new law will not change this.

Q: Will a pot infraction go on my criminal record?

A: Today, if you are convicted of possessing less than an ounce of 
marijuana in California, it will go on your criminal record and drop 
off after two years. A pot infraction will not go on your criminal 
record, although it will be in court records if someone wanted to dig it up.

Q: Will I have to disclose a pot infraction on employment applications?

A: Probably not. Today, many employers ask if job applicants have 
been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor. California Labor Code 
Section 432.8 prohibits them from asking applicants to disclose "any 
convictions for certain marijuana-related misdemeanors that are more 
than two years old. One of them is possession of less than 28.5 
grams" or roughly 1 ounce, says Felicia Reid, a partner with 
employment-law firm Curiale Hirschfeld Kraemer.

Most employers in California deal with this by adding a phrase such 
as "you need not disclose marijuana-related misdemeanors more than 
two years old."

If employers don't change their forms, applicants will not have to 
disclose marijuana infractions. Employers could ask if applicants 
have been convicted of marijuana infractions, but are not likely to.

"Unless it's a very unusual kind of employment, 99 percent of 
employers are not going to inquire about civil infractions," says 
Garry Mathiason, a senior partner with employment law firm Littler Mendelson.

Q: Can I lose college financial aid if I'm convicted of a marijuana infraction?

A: If you are convicted of a marijuana misdemeanor you can lose 
federal student aid. If you are convicted of an infraction, it's not clear.

A federal law states that "a student who is convicted of any offense 
under any federal or state law involving the possession or sale of a 
controlled substance" while receiving federal student aid will no 
longer be eligible for federal aid for a certain period of time. This 
period can be shortened if the student goes through drug rehab. 
Student aid includes all federal loans and grants.

However, a U.S. Department of Education regulation states that "a 
conviction means only a conviction that is on a student's record." It 
does not define record.

If you are convicted of a marijuana infraction, it's still a 
conviction and that could potentially jeopardize your student aid. 
But if it's not on your criminal record, it's not clear whether it 
would have to be reported on the federal student aid application.

Jane Glickman, a spokeswoman for the education department, says, "We 
will review the changes in the California law to see how it affects 
the federal provision."

Students who need help with this question can call (800) 433-3243, 
although it may be a while before they get a definitive answer.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake