At first glance, California’s Proposition 47 does little to further the cause of marijuana decriminalization/legalization. In fact, the only mention of marijuana is in the provision making it a misdemeanor for first-time possession of concentrated cannabis for personal use, whereas before it was a “wobbler” (capable of being charged as a felony or a misdemeanor at the discretion of the district attorney).
What the law does do is change the punishment for more serious drugs, such as methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin. If Prop. 47 is passed, in those cases, first-time possession for personal use can only be charged as a misdemeanor. And, as a result, for the first time in a long while, these substances are placed on similar legal footing as marijuana.
To many of us, that would seem like precious little help for the marijuana community. I mean, yeah, it’s moving things in the right direction, but I think we all feel like full-blown legalization is really what is at issue these days. Many advocates for marijuana legalization might be tempted to disregard this potential change in the law. Trust me, this is a good thing.
How is this good for marijuana possession cases? In the 9 years of my criminal defense practice, cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin possession have always been punished far more severely than marijuana use. Indeed, despite federal drug scheduling, I think most people can agree that cocaine, meth, and heroin are far more dangerous than pot. Most media commentators, especially in recent years, distinguish meth, cocaine, and heroin as “dangerous” drugs opposed to marijuana, which is characterized as something more akin to beer.
Even the anti-marijuana lobby admits that marijuana is not inherently dangerous. Their tack has been to classify marijuana as a “gateway drug” to more dangerous drugs, not a dangerous drug in itself. This was true even when I was a kid attending those “just say no” school assemblies.
Since marijuana possession has been historically punished less severely than that of dangerous drugs and people agree that pot is less dangerous, it makes little sense after the passage of Prop. 47 to now punish marijuana use in the same way as we punish the use of more dangerous drugs. It would seem inherently unfair to have one person convicted of marijuana possession serving the exact same sentence as one who was convicted of heroin possession. With the passage of Prop. 47, that will essentially be the outcome.
Therefore, if Prop. 47 is passed, it is this similarity of sentencing that will provide a very compelling argument for further decriminalization of marijuana. Maybe even legalization. Once passed, marijuana advocates can now argue that it is nonsensical that marijuana should be cast in the same category as more dangerous substances. That is how we came to have differences in sentencing prior to Prop. 47 and could be so again. If you are a California resident and you are interested in further marijuana decriminalization/legalization, I urge you to vote in favor of Prop. 47.