Pubdate: Mon, 04 Mar 2013
Source: Record, The (Stockton, CA)
Copyright: 2013 The Record


New Bill Would Redefine Simple Drug Possession From Felony to

Is every drug abuser a felon? Of course not. Many are just addicts.
The vast majority are not murderers or rapists or robbers. The threat
to the rest of us is pretty minimal.

State Democratic Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco has introduced a bill
that would allow state prosecutors to recognize those facts.

His bill would redefine simple drug possession - having a small amount
for personal use - from a felony to a so-called "wobbler." That means
that a prosecutor would have the flexibility to charge the person with
either a misdemeanor or felony.

To be clear, we're not talking about some druggie working a street
corner outside a school. We're talking about someone in possession of
a drug for personal use. Think of it as an alcoholic found with a
bottle of cheap wine.

We may be disgusted by it but that doesn't make it a felony, a class
of crimes so egregious they result in society's most severe sanctions.

Again, a person caught in possession while, say, robbing a convenience
store should have the hammer dropped on them just like we would drop
one on the alcoholic who climbs behind the wheel of a car and kills
someone in an accident.

Leno reasonably argues that a felony rap for simple possession
sustains a vicious cycle that makes users more likely to commit other
crimes. Once you're a felon, you are cut off from most of the programs
that might help you escape addiction. What's more, felons have a hard
time finding work and their recidivism rate - the likelihood they're
return to incarceration - is staggering.

We've already taken simple possession of marijuana off the felony
shelf. Pot possession is an infraction, something akin to a traffic
ticket. Among other things, that keeps pot users out of our jails.

Those arrested for drug possession can be diverted into treatment
under voter-approved Proposition 36. Opponents of Leno's plan, a
version of which died on the Senate floor last year, argue that it
would undercut the Prop. 36 treatment option by giving those arrested
less incentive to enter treatment if a felony charge is not available.

That's a reasonable concern but certainly one that can be addressed as
this proposal moves through the legislative process. Already Leno has
altered last year's proposal by giving prosecutors the say in how to
charge an arrestee.

In a larger sense, though, Leno's proposal recognizes what too many
still won't recognize: we have very little to show for the billions
we've spend over the last 40 of our "war on drugs."

The two things we do have to show for it are jails crammed full of
drug users and, as Leno says, "perpetuating an underclass of citizens"
especially in minority communities.

It's time for different approaches.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Matt