Legislature stepping away from drug war

A bill approved by the Assembly and heading to the Senate would give prosecutors flexibility in sentencing for low-level offenses.

SACRAMENTO — If you get busted using methamphetamine, the D.A. can charge you with a misdemeanor or a felony. His choice. But if you're caught with cocaine or heroin, there's no option. It's a felony.

If there's logic in that, it escapes me. They're all addictive and destructive to mind and body.

Get high on one hard drug and you might receive a get-out-of-jail-free card. But another earns you a lifetime bad-guy tag.

The Legislature, as it rushes toward adjournment of its annual session Friday, is moving to correct that puzzling contradiction.

It is retreating a bit from the decades-long war on drugs.

"The war on drugs is a colossal failure," says Assemblyman Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks).

Yes, that Tim Donnelly, arguably California's most conservative state lawmaker, a self-proclaimed tea party Republican and one-time Minuteman vigilante who patrolled the border searching for Mexicans entering the U.S. illegally.

Donnelly last week cast a crucial vote that secured Assembly passage of a drug-sentencing bill by liberal Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco). The measure now awaits Senate approval of Assembly amendments, then will be sent to Gov. Jerry Brown. No telling his view.

The bill, SB 649, would provide prosecutors the flexibility to treat all low-level drug possession offenses as either a misdemeanor or a felony — what's known as a "wobbler."

"We give nonviolent drug offenders long terms, offer them no treatment while they're incarcerated and then release them back into the community with few job prospects or options to receive an education," Leno says.

His bill, he continues, would allow local governments to reduce lockup costs and spend their money on drug rehabilitation, mental health services and probation, "reserving limited jail space for serious criminals."

Simple possession for personal use of meth already is a wobbler. This bill would add other hard drugs such as crack cocaine, powder cocaine and heroin.

It wouldn't affect sellers or manufacturers of hard drugs. Those crimes would remain felonies.

And users who steal or rob to finance their drug habits still would face felonies.

If it were left to him, Leno would make all drug possession offenses a misdemeanor. Thirteen other states have done that, varying widely from New York and Massachusetts to Wyoming and Mississippi.

"On average," the senator says, "reducing penalties to misdemeanors has resulted in lower drug use, higher rates of drug treatment participation and even less property and violent crime."

Leno sponsored a misdemeanor-only bill last year, and it failed miserably on the Senate floor.

Some liberals would legalize all drug use. That would be foolish. People — especially kids — should not be able to just walk into a Safeway and get blotto. Alcohol is bad enough. These are not "victimless" crimes. They destroy families.

It's important to remember that Leno is not proposing legalization, or even treating hard drugs like marijuana. Smoking pot in California, at worst, is considered an infraction, like a traffic ticket. No one gets jailed these days for toking weed.

Not many are even locked up in state prison solely for possessing hard drugs — only 827 out of 133,000 total inmates, according to the state corrections department. All were sentenced before Brown's 2011 "realignment" that shifted incarceration of most low-level offenders to local jails.