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California on path to lower penalties for drug possession

California lawmakers have begun the legislative process of reducing penalties for drug possession within the state. Senate Bill 1506, introduced by Senator Mark Leno of San Francisco, California, would make the possession of heroin, meth and coke a misdemeanor rather than a felony, as it is now. Although the measure passed the Senate Public Safety Committee by a 4-2 vote, it still needs to pass the full Senate and Assembly before becoming law.

The measure has garnered support from unexpected sources, including San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón. His position sums up the position of most in favor of the bill: making drug possession a felony simply means long prison sentences and no rehabilitation.

Making possession a misdemeanor, on the other hand, results in placement in drug treatment facilities. Gascón's support pits him against the California District Attorneys Association, which believes the lower penalties would lead to property crime and violence. Others in opposition, like the Sheriffs' Association, believe the measure is "too far, too fast."

Drug possession is a serious criminal charge and drug usage is a problem in many California cities. Nonetheless, those in favor of Senate Bill 1506 suggest that it is not a mere decriminalization law but a law trying to break what is referred to as the "vicious cycle" of drug-related incarceration. Criminal defense lawyers specializing in drug possession have long fought for alternatives to conviction, such as Proposition 36 sentencing under which drug possession charges are dismissed after completion of an 18 month drug treatment program. Senate Bill 1506 is thus seen by many as a step in the right direction in terms of rehabilitating offenders and helping them move on with their lives.

Source: Los Angeles Times, "Senate panel supports lesser penalties for heroin, meth possession," April 17, 2012

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