California Voters Make Possession of Most Drugs a Misdemeanor Offense


Last night voters in California approved Proposition 47, an initiative that effectively changes the status of a number of low-level, nonviolent drug and property offenses from felonies to misdemeanors.

The initiative changes the possession of most drugs, including cocaine and heroin, from a felony offense to a misdemeanor. Possession of certain, less common Schedule I and II substances (including LSD for some reason) will remain a felony offense. Certain property offenses such as shoplifting, grand theft, receiving stolen property, forgery, fraud, and writing a bad check will all be considered misdemeanor offenses, as long as these crimes involve $950 or less.

The initiative also allows offenders currently serving felony sentences for these offenses, including some inmates sentenced under the state's draconian Three Strikes law, to petition a court for resentencing. 

For offenders who have previously been convicted of one or more certain serious or violent offenses, however, current convictions of these crimes would remain felonies punishable by 16 months, two, or three years in a county jail.

California's Legislative Analyst's Office (LAO) estimates California will save "several hundred million dollars annually, primarily from freeing jail capacity" at the county level.

LAO also estimates the initiative could result in the release of "several thousand inmates" from state prisons, which could temporarily reduce the state prison population "for a few years." 

The initiative stipulates that the 65 percent of the savings achieved be used to support "mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, and diversion programs for people in the criminal justice system, with an emphasis on programs that reduce recidivism of people convicted of less serious crimes," 25 percent of the savings be used on a program to reduce truancy and support students who are "at risk of dropping out of school or are victims of crime," and 10 percent be used to support trauma recovery centers and to provide services to victims of crime. 

Some may say this ballot initiative was necessary to overcome the state government's lack of political will to pursue any type of meaningful sentencing reform to help reduce it's unconstitutionally overcrowded prisons. Indeed, Governor Brown vetoed legislation just last year that would have given prosecutors the choice of charging low-level drug possession as a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the case.

Yet an overwhelming number of voters—58 percent—cast their ballot for Proposition 47 yesterday, a measure that's arguably much more "radical" than the sentencing reform bill vetoed by Brown last year.

The success of the measure can be attributed, in large part, to the amount of outside support it received.

All in all, the measure received roughly $10.8 million in financial support from groups and individuals of all political and ideological backgrounds, including conservative billionaire B. Wayne Hughes, Jr. and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings. Opponents of the measure managed to raise only $500,000. Notably, B. Wayne Hughes, Jr. and former drug warrior turned reformer Newt Gingrich co-authored an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times touting the benefits of the measure's proposed reforms.

Olivia Wilde and Barbara Burchfield, via Olivia Wilde's Twitter
Credit: @oliviawilde (Twitter)

Proposition 47 also drew the support of a number of A-list celebrities such as Jay Z, Olivia Wilde, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, John Legend, and others who were featured on the website, artistsfor47.com. For a criminal justice reform initiative, this type of support is truly unprecedented.  

It's hard to believe that this measure passed in the same state in which voters once enacted the nation's most draconian Three Strikes law just 20 years ago, which required offenders convicted of any third felony offense, including minor drug possession offenses, to be sentenced to life in prison.

The success of this measure indicates that sentencing reform is starting to become palatable to more than just libertarians, but the general public. Criminal justice reform is certainly an issue both Democrats and Republicans agree is going to play a central role in the 2016 presidential election. Let's hope that what happened in California last night may be replicated elsewhere, either by legislators or voters themselves.

Corretion: The original version of this blog post wrongly stated that possession of LSD would remain a felony offense under Prop. 47. Simple possession of LSD, like with most other drugs, has been reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor offense with the passage of this initiative.