SACRAMENTO – On January 1, 2011, a law passed by the California State Legislature and signed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger went into effect that removed criminal penalties for possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, making the violation a civil citation similar to a parking ticket.
Supporters of the law argued that it would remove some of the financial burden associated with arresting people for marijuana possession, while lessening the damage done by having a criminal record. Advocates now eagerly await the release of arrest data, as well as state expenditures on marijuana enforcement and prosecution, to determine if the state is adequately following the law.
“Serious unintended consequences have surfaced as a result of this mischaracterization [marijuana possession being a misdemeanor as opposed to a civil infraction],” said Sen. Mark Leno, the bill’s sponsor, during debate on the bill in 2010.
“As the number of misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests have surged in recent years, reaching 61,388 in 2008, the burden[s] placed on the courts by these low level offenses are just too much to bear at a time when resources are shrinking and caseloads are growing. Defendants may demand an entire jury trial — including the costs of jury selection, defense, and court time — for a penalty of only $100."
If California has effectively implemented this law, arrests for marijuana possession should be much lower than in 2010, as should the amount of resources spent on arresting and prosecuting marijuana violations. Conclusive data has not yet been made available.
"We welcome the one year anniversary of the full decriminalization of possession of up to 28.5 grams of marijuana in California and view this legislative victory as much needed change,” said Robert Capecchi, a legislative analyst at the Marijuana Policy Project. “In 2009, the clearance rate for violent crimes committed in California was a mere 43.7%.
"By removing non-violent possession of a small amount of marijuana from the criminal realm, California law enforcement is better able to focus their limited resources on policing and prosecuting crimes of violence, as well as those committed against private property. However, the Marijuana Policy Project fully understands that the brave men and women of California law enforcement will be much better equipped to keep the citizens of the Golden State secure in their persons and property once the state removes its prohibition on marijuana and taxes and regulates the substance like alcohol."
The Marijuana Policy Project, the largest marijuana-policy-reform organization in the United States, has been responsible for changing most state-level marijuana laws since 2000. For more information, please visit www.mpp.org.