Sen. Leno Introduces Cal. Bill to Make MJ Possession an Infraction

Cal NORML Release - March 14, 2010

SACRAMENTO State Sen. Mark Leno (D-SF) has announced the introduction of a bill (SB1449) to downgrade possession of one ounce or less of marijuana to an infraction instead of a misdemeanor.

By making possession an infraction, the bill would spare possession offenders the necessity of a court appearance and criminal record. Instead, they would simply pay a ticket.

Leno's bill would save the state millions of dollars in court costs by keeping minor pot offenders out of court. The number of misdemeanor pot arrests has surged in recent years, reaching 61,388 in 2008, the highest level since decriminalization in 1976.

Although SB 1449 would seem to be a no-brainer given the current state budget crisis, the legislature killed three previous bills to make possession an infraction in 2001, 2004 and 2006. All three failed to win approval in the Assembly after passing the Senate.

California NORML supports SB 1449 with the understanding that it won't raise the present $100 fine for possession. (Sen. Leno has promised to fix a drafting error that mistakenly set the fine at $250.) Marijuana advocates withdrew support from the last two infraction bills after they were amended so as raise the fine to $250.

In practice, the cost of the current $100 fine rises to $273 when additional court fees and assessments are included. Similarly, the potential cost of a $250 infraction would mount to $895 - far beyond the means of the average pot smoker.

At present, marijuana possession has a unique status in California law as the only misdemeanor that is not punishable by arrest or jail time. One advantage of this system is that misdemeanor offenders are entitled to a jury trial, which is not true for infractions.

A number of enterprising defendants have accordingly succeeded in getting prosecutors to drop charges by demanding a jury trial for petty possession. Far more frequently, though, defendants are railroaded into expensive and time-consuming treatment programs so as to avoid a criminal record. Those who do so are usually unaware that minor pot possession offenses are expunged from criminal records two years after conviction.

When the Moscone decriminalization act was proposed in 1975, advocates tried to make possession an infraction, but district attorneys
successfully lobbied to keep it a misdemeanor.

- D. Gieringer, Cal NORML