California's Prop 47 Is A More Effective Drug Reform Than Marijuana Legalization

| by Will Hagle

A major result of the 2014 midterm elections was the advancement of marijuana legalization in Alaska, Oregon and D.C. The decision for two states and the nation’s capital to legalize the recreational use of a substance classified as a Schedule 1 drug on the federal level is a significant step forward for many reasons, including ending the unnecessary incarceration caused by existing drug laws. Yet California’s Proposition 47, far from 2010’s failed marijuana legalization initiative Prop. 19, paves a stronger and more important path for drug reform.

The initiative, which reduces the penalties for several nonviolent and non-serious crimes such as theft, forgery and drug possession, was approved by more than 3.7 million voters, or 59 percent of the voting population. In terms of drug policy, the proposition reduces the penalty for any possession of drugs for personal use from a felony to a misdemeanor. Methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine, prescription drugs and other controlled substances are all covered under the new law. 

According to Willits News, there are currently 4,770 inmates in state prison for crimes changed by Prop. 47. In 2013, 5,620 people were sent to state prison for drug-related crimes, and 3,176 of those people were charged with possession. Under the provisions of the new law, inmates can file a petition with the court to be released. The Atlantic estimates that approximately 7,000 inmates are likely to file such petitions. Thousands of prisoners could be released, helping the state work towards ending problems of overcrowding and unsatisfactory living conditions for inmates. 

The state will benefit from the new law just as much as prisoners. The Legislative Analyst’s Office, the state’s nonpartisan fiscal and policy advisor, estimates that the criminal justice system could save several hundred million dollars each year to be reinvested towards “school truancy and dropout prevention, mental health and substance abuse treatment, and victim services.” Without a felony on their record, those charged with drug possession should find an easier time re-entering society, obtaining employment and the other many difficult hurdles that often send individuals back to prisons. It’s a progressive approach towards reducing the prison population and working with people to achieve true reform. 

While the rest of the country slowly increases their tolerance for legalized recreational marijuana, California has taken a much bolder approach to drug reform. Rather than criminalizing possession, drug addiction is finally being treated as an issue unconnected to the penitentiary system. California is the first state to enact such a sweeping measure in terms of sentences for drug-related crimes, but other states will likely be watching to see how the economic and societal impact unfolds. Marijuana legalization makes headlines because it signifies a relatively unprecedented step forward in the way the substance is perceived in modern society. Prop. 47, however, addresses the most important issues surrounding the unnecessary criminalization of drugs.