Sensible handling of marijuana offenders is crucial to prison reforms

Among the many hard questions faced by legislators under the current budget mandate to cut $1.2 billion in corrections spending, there's at least one easy answer: release non-violent marijuana offenders and reform penalties for some marijuana offenses.

Patching the hole in our prison budget is going to require much more than early release programs. Serious sentencing reforms are inevitable, especially considering the looming court order to reduce the inmate population by 27 percent.

With dangerously overcrowded prisons, Californians can no longer afford to waste valuable cell space – not to mention the annual per-inmate cost of $49,000 – on non-violent marijuana offenders. If you think this conclusion is way too obvious to merit the column-inches in this publication, you might be surprised to know who didn't include marijuana sentencing reform in his list of prison cuts.

Incredibly, early reports of the Gov. Schwarzenegger's forthcoming proposal to trim the prison budget suggest he would rather reduce penalties for crimes like auto theft, receiving stolen property, or writing bad checks than for offenders charged with growing even a single marijuana plant or selling a joint. The governor's plan would change some property crimes that are currently charged as felonies to misdemeanors, but, bizarrely, leave felony penalties for victimless marijuana offenses intact.

Ironically, Gov. Schwarzenegger recently dismissed the idea of taxing and regulating marijuana as not being worth the $1.4 billion in new revenue it would bring to the state, but now he's trying to tell us that reducing penalties for car thieves is a perfectly fine way to save a few bucks. No wonder confidence in state government is at a record low in California.

Although the state "decriminalized" marijuana possession over 30 years ago and most of the state's voters now support taxing and regulating marijuana sales, it remains a felony to grow even one plant or sell a single joint in California. According to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 1,538 marijuana offenders are housed in California's jam-packed prisons. This figure does not include the undoubtedly larger number of inmates returned to prison on marijuana-related parole violations, such as testing positive for marijuana.

It's time for the legislature to show common sense and include non-violent marijuana offenses in the inevitable sentencing reform package.

Currently, marijuana cultivation, possession for sale, and transportation – of even for the smallest amounts – are always treated as felonies. A smart reform would be to allow district attorneys discretion to prosecute these offenses as either felonies or misdemeanors. This way, the person who sells a gram of marijuana to his neighbor doesn't end up in the state corrections system along side dangerous criminals.

Lawmakers should also finally act on a seven-year-old suggestion from the Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) by reducing penalties for simple possession of hashish (concentrated marijuana resin) from a felony to a misdemeanor. The LAO's 2002 report estimated that this simple change would save the state $4.8 million. Possession of marijuana is already treated as a misdemeanor — there's no good reason why possessing hashish, which is equivalent to marijuana in terms of associated risks, shouldn't be treated equally under the law.

Amending the marijuana laws is not only one of the better prison reform options in terms of public safety, it would also be safe politically. Nobody in their right mind wants the law to go easier on a car thief than a person who grows a marijuana plant in his or her backyard. And polling indicates that most Californians want marijuana legal these days, anyway.

We clearly cannot afford to lock up everyone who grows or sells marijuana – especially when we could be controlling its sales through regulations akin to those imposed on alcohol vendors and using the tax revenues to pay for enforcement.

Reforming penalties for victimless marijuana offenses is a good idea in terms of the immediate prison fix, but a substantial overhaul of our corrections system is still needed to address the bigger problems our state faces. Lawmakers should support legally taxing and regulating marijuana as part of a long-term plan to solve California's criminal justice crisis.

More than 100 million Americans – including our own governor – have used marijuana and led perfectly functional, productive lives. It's about time our elected leaders produce a functional marijuana policy in California.

Want to see more stories like this? Sign up for The Roundup, the free daily newsletter about California politics from the editors of Capitol Weekly. Stay up to date on the news you need to know.

Sign up below, then look for a confirmation email in your inbox.


Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: