By Jobert Poblete
Legislation designed to help pot smokers instead had many of them going all like, “Dude, what the fuck?!?!” But the author is now telling everyone to chill out, no problem, he’s got it under control.
California Sen. Mark Leno (D-SF) introduced a bill last month that would make possession of up to one ounce of marijuana an infraction instead of a misdemeanor. As introduced, the bill – Senate Bill 1449 – would also raise fines to $250 from $100, which pot advocates and their allies thought was a serious bummer. But Leno called this a “drafting error” that he intends to correct with an amendment this week.
Marijuana possession is currently the only misdemeanor on the books that does not result in a jail sentence. Leno told us that SB 1449 would correct this irregularity. Leno also said that the bill would save the state time and money. Unlike infractions, misdemeanor charges give defendants the right to costly jury trials and access to public defenders.
“Because of the allowance for a jury trial, a lot of time, money, and effort is wasted when it's an infraction, misnamed,” Leno told us. “Either we call it what it is – a $100 fine is an infraction – or if it is a misdemeanor, then increase the penalty to include jail time. But no one wants to do that.”
Similar bills have failed in the Senate before. But Leno thinks that the economic crisis and changing attitudes have changed the climate in Sacramento. He cited polls that show a majority of Californians support decriminalizing marijuana possession altogether and an initiative to do just that could appear on the November ballot.
Drug policy reform advocates supported the move to make possession an infraction instead of a misdemeanor but raised concerns about the possible increase in fines. “We have always supported making marijuana possession an infraction instead of a misdemeanor,” said Dale Gieringer, vice chair of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
Aaron Smith, California policy director at the Marijuana Policy Project, raised concerns about the possible increase in fines and emphasized the need to focus on broader efforts to decriminalize marijuana. “Everyone should be focusing on making marijuana taxed and regulated instead of fiddling with the fines,” Smith said.
Leno considers his bill complementary to the broader efforts to legalize marijuana. “If we're going to decriminalize and tax, we're really going from infraction to decriminalization,” Leno said. “It's really an infraction, so let's call it that.”