If passed, those convicted for drug possession would be sent to substance-abuse treatment centers, sentenced to probation or ordered to perform community service, instead of being incarcerated.
For decades, law enforcement officers across the U.S. have fought the war on drugs by locking users behind bars. But since that strategy hasn’t proven to be successful in the slightest, some officers in California have come together to propose reducing charges for the simple possession of all drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor.
One of the proposal’s biggest supporters is San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, who is working with San Diego Police Chief Bill Lansdowne to push for the inclusion of such a measure on the state ballot this fall.
If passed, those convicted for drug possession, including heroin, would be sent to substance-abuse treatment centers, sentenced to probation or ordered to perform community service, instead of being locked behind bars. Unlike a felony, a misdemeanor charge would not appear on an individual’s permanent record.
Though it may be shocking for some to hear law enforcement not only admit the war on drugs failed, but also proposing a softened stance on drug laws, Dan Newman, a political strategist, who is working on the bill, says that when it comes to drug-related issues, there is a surprising amount of unanimity on the political left and right.
“I think everybody sort of had this secret belief that — I probably shouldn’t say this out loud if I ever want to have dinner with my Republican friends again — but in the privacy of the voting booth, I’d support that,” Newman said.
While Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a similar piece of legislation last October, which was largely opposed by law enforcement and prosecutors, Barry Krisberg, a senior fellow at UC Berkeley Law School, says drug sentencing reform is something the people want.
Currently, there are about 4,000 inmates serving time in prison for simple drug possession offenses in the state, which costs voters about $207 million per year. Since the state has a severely overcrowded prison population, many Californians view a softened drug policy as a way to save some money.
“If they can get it to the ballot, it will pass,” Krisberg said. “There’s been polling on this, and 60 percent of Californians say just because someone uses drugs, they don’t want that person to be incarcerated.”
About 500,000 signatures need to be collected before the measure can be put on the ballot. Since many voters in the state agree with Glenn Backes of the Drug Policy Alliance, that a felony should be reserved for violent crime and not because people put something into their own bodies, it looks highly likely this measure will be on the ballot.
Although the measure doesn’t appear to have a lot of critics, at least not yet, San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, who worked the narcotics beat for years, says he’s not so sure this kind of policy will work.
Suhr agrees with the theory behind reducing drug penalties since “jail is for bad guys, not sick people …” but he says police officers need to be given a firm marker for how much of a drug is considered personal use.
“If someone is stopped with, for example, an ounce of heroin,” he said “that’s a huge amount of heroin. They may say, ‘Well, I’m going to do all this.’ And we say, ‘No you’re not.’ “
If the measure is put on the ballot and passes, California will not be the first state to make simple drug possession charge a misdemeanor, as such legislation currently exists in 13 states.
Based on an analysis of Justice Department data from 2010 by the Drug Policy Alliance and American Civil Liberties Union, drug offenders in those states are more likely to seek treatment and less likely to use illegal drugs.