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, 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.  

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  1. Good news.

  2. Local prosecutors to start colluding with US Attorneys to bring federal charges for possession? You know it’s going to happen.

    1. Well, it already happens. Will the feds be willing to put any more resources behind it?

      I think they won’t bother. It’s not like anyone is talking about legalizing hard drugs at all.

  3. Sound like California is the place to be.

  4. Man, it seems like so many other states had really good initiatives pass, from MJ legalization to this. And then there’s the successful passage of the horrible Initiative 594 here in WA. We got stuck with the suck. Yay!

    1. What are the chances of WA Supreme Court overturning it?

      1. Is this a joke?

    2. My thoughts exactly. I expected it to pass, but that doesn’t make it less infuriating.

  5. California voters may not get a lot of things right, but at least they are starting to see the light on penal reform and our screwed up drug laws.

    1. We also voted down the horrible props 45 & 46 — to my amazement. One would have given almost complete control over health insurance rates to the insurance commissioner, and the other was a trial lawyer’s dream through draconian drug & alcohol testing of doctors and a related increase on award caps.

      1. Libertarian Moment.

  6. There’ll be kids smoking heroin at recess, because of this.

    1. And that will leader to the harder stuff, like pot.

    2. heroin laced turkeys at Thanksgiving?

  7. Rand Paul went on the Sunday talk shows last week and mentioned criminal justice reform on each, specifically restoring voting rights to some felons. Seems like he’s ahead of the curve.

  8. The results of this, and Props 45 & 46, were about the only bright spots for me, here in California.

    On the downside, Governor Brown got an unprecedented 4th term, Gavin “I’m so handsome!” Newsom is back as the lieutenant, and the Democrats strengthened their hold on Sacramento.

    I suppose I should take solace where I can.

    1. I thought prop 45 was a shoe-in to pass when I marked that no arrow. Very pleasant surprise there.

      But yeah, the elections for offices did not go so well. The stupid state couldn’t even pick the correct candidate between two Dems (well, technically a nonpartisan race) for superintendent of education.

  9. first wave of crime increase when the judges ordered California to release prisoners due to overcrowding. Now the second wave of crime is about to begin since my idiot fellow Californians think crime is a minor offense. BTW the so called Draconian three strikes laws have worked on reducing crime. Until now that is. May as well put out a sign for all criminals to come here and do as they please because we can’t do anything to them anymore. I just can’t believe this passed, Stupid Stupid people.

    1. P.S. note for you people who think this is an anti drug war law, it’s not it also includes theft and other crimes. Hope you like being robbed all the time. Before this law in California you were only given a ticket for any drug possesion in the first place unless the quantities were enough to be deemed not for personal use.

      1. Does it include robbery? That isn’t the same thing as theft. I would have thought that most petty theft was already a misdemeanor anyway. I don’t know the details of this new law, but it’s not as if they are decriminalizing anything as far as I can see. Misdemeanors generally can lead to jail time.

        1. The legislature previously passed a law making the theft of any gun a felony – no ifs, ands or buts. This throws this out and since most guns used in crimes are of the cheaper variety, nobody will be guilty of a felony unless they use that gun.

          This was a stupid poorly thought out proposition.

        2. There is no room at the inn. In LA County a sentence of 90 days or less means the only time you will spend in jail is to be processed and released. You will spend more time pre-trial in jail than post.

      2. Theft =/= robbery.

        Also, the proposition’s inclusion of theft specifically limits it to instances when total monetary value of the goods involved is less than $950.

        1. Yes and people think stolen items less than $950 is harmless. have you ever had $600 worth of tools stolen that you can’t afford to replace or how about a batter stolen from your truck and and then you have to lose a day of work so you can fix it. BTW thieves don’t unbolt batteries they cut the cables which can be a bear to replace on some trucks

          1. I have not, but I wasn’t really arguing whether $950 is a good limit or not. I thought that was important fact that was originally left out.

            I do think petty theft should be differentiated from larger scale theft but I don’t have an answer as to what that number should be. Plus, it’s not like theft under $950 was suddenly made legal.

            btw…I assume what you wrote happened to you? That sucks…I hope they caught the scumbags that did it.

            1. I didn’t think you were arguing the point but I was trying to reinforce the point that a dollar value has a different value to different people making one mans petty theft another mans real world burden. And yes it was me who was robbed and the police did nothing as usual for such small thefts. They also did nothing when my $3000.00 computer was stolen with a lot of expensive intellectual work on it. Different story different place but I do believe that now theft will be even more common since the criminals will be able to stay free as long as they keep the price down.

          2. A lot of smash and grab destroys more value than it walks away with.

            Look on the bright side – just think how good this will be for car window replacement companies!

            A *booming* economy is coming California’s way, particularly when people realize that with the penalty dropped down to a misdemeanor, the cops will care even less (and you thought they couldn’t care less) about property crime. Lots of people will be turning to their *boom* sticks when they decide to retrieve their property themselves.

  10. Well, that’s nice. It has always seemed pretty absurd that simple possession of hard drugs is often a felony.
    The absurdly high penalties for LSD are very odd as well. I’ve never quite understood that.

  11. Pissed me off that the thing about property crimes was included, almost was a poison pill for me. I wavered long and hard before holding my nose and voting yes. It’s hard enough to get police to take burglary seriously. It’s one of the few things I think the police *should* be for, and it just got worse. $950 is not a trivial amount.

    1. Gotta agree with you. Drug possession is a victimless non-crime; theft, shoplifting, forgery, fraud are real crimes, and are not victimless.

      1. I you have ever hung around a drug house and seen the losers coming and going and wonder where they get their money you would not be so sympathetic to drug possession.

        My never employed brother and his useless twat drug addict girlfriend off and on sold drugs out of my mom’s house. The police eventually forced them to move out. When I go over there to take care of my mom’s situation all the neighbors thank me for helping get rid of my brother.

  12. I voted for this… you may thank me now. It was interesting that most of the literature against included that identity thieves would be let go. But the actual proposition included only forgers that did not also include identity theft would fall under the new law. As a victim of identity theft, they can all rot in hell.

  13. And what is the point of consolidating a number of offenses for the same penalty level reduction…. and then making you vote ‘yes or no’ on it? Drugs and theft aren’t the same thing, even though they may me correlated in some cases.

    1. *be correlated

      WTB edit button

  14. “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.”

    Welcome to the jungle.

    Misdemeanors? Do they even investigate and prosecute those on anyone without the means to pay a hefty fine?

    Property crime goes through the roof. People know the cops will do nothing about it. Guess what happens then? $1k is real money to a lot of people, and they’re not gonna just eat it.

    1. The only misdemeanor that gets severe punishment is DUI. Because of the .08 limit a lot of perfectly in control people get nabbed after a party. If they are well off they get hit with big fines and are forced to attend stupid programs at their expense. Those kind of people can’t afford to refuse to pay the fine and see if the system will jail them (it won’t).

  15. Did anyone in California actually READ this ballot initiative?? I’m all for decriminalizing/legalizing drugs, but this also reduces the consequences of personal property crimes like theft and vandalism.

    From the General Election guide:

    “Requires misdemeanor sentence instead of felony for certain drug possession offenses”

    Absolutely agree with this. If you want to posses and take drugs, fine by me. But you still need to be held accountable when you violate others rights, i.e. personal property, theft, fraud etc..

    ” Reduces Misdemeanor sentence instead of felony for the following crimes when the amount involved is $950.00 or less: petty theft, receiving stolen property, and forging/writing bad checks”.

    This is wrong in every way. This is the slippery slope that will lead to full legalization of drugs(a good thing) AND tax payer funded programs to deal with addiction.( HUGE ENTITLEMENT) This is what the Progressives want.

    If you want to play, you gotta pay.

    1. It sucks when a bill you want is chained to a bill you don’t. I’m sure it was a deliberate move by whoever wanted the non-drug part to pass.

  16. BTW, I live in California..

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