CA NORML Legislative News
SACRAMENTO Aug. 2004. The Assembly voted down a Sen. Byron Sher's bill (SB 131) to change penalties for possession an ounce or less of marijuana. The bill, which had originally been designed to decriminalize possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction, had been amended to also increase the fine from $100 to $250, causing Cal NORML to drop its support for it.
The fine increase was added to attract the support of the California District Attorneys' association, which argued that $250 is the standard fine for infractions under California law.
SB 131 failed on a vote of 29-39, seven votes worse than when the original, unamended bill came to a vote last year.
"It's good this bill was killed," said Cal NORML coordinator Dale Gieringer, "The legislature would do better to consider more comprehensive decriminalization measures next year."
Opinion among marijuana attorneys was divided on SB 131: some thought that $250 was a fair price for avoiding a criminal record. However, others pointed out that under present law, convictions are officially expunged after two years. Furthermore, defendants have the right to challenge the misdemeanor in a jury trial, which often results in dismissal of charges. Jury trials would no longer have been allowed under the infraction system in SB 131, although defendants would be spared the inconvenience of a court appearance.
The stated goal of SB 131 was to reduce court costs by eliminating jury trials for petty pot cases. Possession of an ounce or less has been punishable by a maximum $100 fine since enactment of the Moscone decriminalization act in 1976. Since that time the value of an ounce has increased, while the value of the dollar has declined. Nonetheless, over the same time, California NORML observes, the evidence has only strengthened that marijuana shouldn't be an offense at all.
In another setback for decriminalization, the legislature failed to act on a bill by Assemblyman John Longville (AB 2233) to decriminalize cultivation of six plants or less to a misdemeanor.
"Itıs a shame that the legislature seems incapable of passing any bill to substantially reduce marijuana penalties," commented Gieringer.
In another setback for marijuana offenders, the legislature watered down a bill by Assemblyman Mark Leno to restore food stamp benefits to drug felons. The bill (AB 1796) was intended to opt out of a federal regulation denying food stamp eligibility to drug felons for life. However, in order to bolster support, an amendment was added essentially excluding all drug felonies except possession offenses. Since there are no marijuana felonies for possession only for cultivation, distribution, intent to sell, etc the bill will have no effect on marijuana offenders. The only beneficiaries will be persons convicted of felony possession of hard drugs, an offense which itself has been mostly decriminalized since the passage of Prop. 36 in 2000.