Schwarzenegger: Potheads Can Just Pay a Small Fine, Needle Drug Users Can Die


California's Gov. Schwarzenegger signed a bill reducing possession of less than an ounce of marijuana to a mere infraction (less than a misdemeanor) punishable by just fines up to $100, and no jail time. At the same time, he vetoed various bills related to the potential use of other illegal drugs, such as bills that would liberalize access to needles or reduce the legal risk of reporting overdoses to authorities.

The loosening in legal punishments for pot got plenty of press, but his move to keep often fatal restrictions on access to needles and to help in case of overdoses only snuck out in his messages to the state legislature.

Assembly Bill 2460 would have, as the ACLU explains:

address[ed] needless drug overdose deaths that occur when witnesses to an overdose hesitate to contact emergency services because they fear arrest for themselves or for the person experiencing the overdose. Fear of police involvement and criminal punishment for themselves or their friends is statistically one of the most common reasons people cite for not calling 911 when they witness an overdose. AB 2460 would provide limited criminal immunity for only 3 low-level drug crimes (being under the influence and possession for personal use and possession of drug paraphernalia) only for persons who contact emergency services to save the life of someone experiencing an overdose, and to the person experiencing the overdose for whom emergency services are contacted.

While both houses of California's state legislature thought this made sense, Schwarzenegger thought since this humane bill to help save lives "fails to address problematic, high-risk drug use and behavior. Accountability, and the need for the legal consequences arising from such high-risk behavior, is eliminated under this bill," he had to veto it.

That such "elimination" of legal punishment for behavior that harms no one else's life or property directly comes only in the context of saving someone's life doesn't seem to matter to the Gov, though to their credit it did matter to California's legislature.

Two other bills affecting that most despised of American minorities, users of needle drugs, that passed the legislature because of their positive effects on health and safety were also vetoed this week by Schwarzenegger: SB 1029 and AB 1858.

The Drug Policy Alliance explained the good sense behind SB 1029:

California is behind much of the country when it comes to preventing HIV and hepatitis C. California is one of only three states in the country that still prohibits pharmacists from selling syringes to an adult without a prescription. Almost no other state restricts pharmacists in this way. In California thousands of people a year still contract HIV or hepatitis C from sharing injection equipment because they are unable to buy them in a pharmacy. HIV and hepatitis are both costly, deadly diseases, and the cost of caring for them often falls on public resources. A current limited pilot program is due to expire at the end of the year, despite clear evidence of success.

Fortunately, though, Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has introduced legislation (SB 1029) that will extend the pilot and allow pharmacies to sell syringes statewide. The legislation has passed the Senate and Assembly…

"Allowing adults to spend their own money to protect their health and the health of others is a no-cost and highly effective way to prevent the spread of deadly diseases," said [the DPA's Laura] Thomas. "We hope Governor Schwarzenegger chooses to leave a legacy of expanding HIV and hepatitis C prevention in California–saving lives and saving money."

Nope, he decided to just veto it instead.

AB 1858 would have, as Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield explains

allow[ed] the California Department of Public Health to authorize community clinics or other health agencies to provide syringe exchange services in any location where the department determines that the conditions exist for the rapid spread of HIV, viral hepatitis or any other potentially deadly or disabling infections that are spread through the sharing of used syringes…..

More than 200 studies have reached the incontrovertible conclusion that syringe exchange service is a cost-effective means to reduce the spread of HIV and viral hepatitis, and that these programs do not contribute to increased drug use, drug injection, crime or unsafe discard of syringes. Most programs not only provide prevention education, but also provide referral to drug treatment and other vital health services, including screenings for HIV, hepatitis and sexually transmitted infections.

Schwarzenegger vetoed that too. While he is showing some good sense regarding legal punishments for pot, he still seems to believe, against the wishes of the elected legislature, that anyone using needle drugs deserves whatever they get. It's horribly inhumane, and bad for the state's already staggering bottom line, and just plain dumb.

[Cross-posted at my California news and politics blog, "City of Angles." Thanks to the Drug Policy Alliance's Meghan Ralston, who did heroic work on getting those vetoed bills through the legislature, for leads and info on this very non-reported story.]