Legislation recently introduced to the California Senate would change simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor under state law.


State Sen. Mark Leno (D), who introduced the bill, touted the revision as a way to alleviate overcrowding in state prisons and county jails, and save millions of dollars in the process.

“There is no evidence to suggest that long prison sentences deter or limit people from abusing drugs,” Leno said. “In fact, time behind bars and felony records often have horrible unintended consequences for people trying to overcome addiction because they are unlikely to receive drug treatment in prison and have few job prospects and educational opportunities when they leave. This legislation will help implement public safety realignment and protect our communities by reserving prison and jail space for more serious offenders.”

The state is struggling with its massive prison population. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to release about 40,000 inmates because prison conditions caused by chronic overcrowding violated the constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, reducing penalties for drug possession would save counties about $159 million per year.

The new legislation, SB 1506, would not apply to anyone involved in selling, manufacturing or possessing drugs for sale. Federal laws already treat drug possession as a misdemeanor.

The bill is co-sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, Drug Policy Alliance, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"The California Hawaii State NAACP is excited to work with Senator Leno and the Legislature to roll back the inappropriately punitive approach to drug use and drug addiction,” said Alice A. Huffman, president of the California Hawaii NAACP. “These flawed drug policies mostly target African American and Latino communities in California and they must be replaced with evidenced-based practices that address the root causes of drug use and abuse in our state and in America.”