In 2011, the year after California changed simple marijuana possession to an infraction, misdemeanor arrests involving cannabis plummeted by 85% in the state.
The law signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger meant some 47,000 fewer Californians were arrested the first year for a misdemeanor. Having a misdemeanor placed on one’s record can make it harder to get jobs and apartments, activists said.
Now, as state voters consider fully legalizing recreational use of marijuana, opponents argue Proposition 64 is unnecessary because there has already been de facto legalization, while proponents note that the current drug laws are still sending thousands of people to jail each year.
“The numbers are clear — arrests for marijuana have dropped dramatically since the changes in the law,” said Andrew Acosta, a spokesman for the opposition campaign.
Supporters, he said, are “refusing to acknowledge the pure profit motivations that are really driving supporters like Weedmaps and marijuana investment firms who are contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to pass Prop. 64."
However, the legalization advocacy group Drug Policy Action says the initiative is needed. It cited a study it commissioned that found that 1,064 people went to jail for marijuana-related offenses in 2014 in 12 counties it looked at, including Los Angeles, Orange, Santa Clara and Contra Costa.
Statewide, the group estimates more than 2,100 people went to jail last year for marijuana-only offenses, including possession of more than an ounce and holding it with intent to sell.
“It does not make sense to criminalize marijuana,” said Jolene Forman, an attorney for Drug Policy Action. “It wastes taxpayer dollars locking up young people, diverts law enforcement resources away from more important work, and places cruel burdens on black and Latino communities, even though whites, blacks and Latinos sell and use marijuana at equal rates."
Schwarzenegger, who years before his election famously smoked marijuana on screen for the documentary “Pumping Iron,” said at the time he decriminalized simple possession (28.5 grams, which is less than an ounce) that many people convicted of the crime as a misdemeanor were already facing small fines.
"In this time of drastic budget cuts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, law enforcement and the courts cannot afford to expend limited resources prosecuting a crime that carries the same punishment as a traffic ticket,” Schwarzenegger said in 2010 when he signed the law.
The law had an immediate effect. In 2010, more than 54,800 people were arrested on misdemeanor marijuana charges, according to the California attorney general’s office.
The first full year of the change saw 7,764 misdemeanor arrests, the office reported. In 2014, the most recent year for which the attorney general has numbers, 6,411 people were arrested for misdemeanor marijuana offenses.
Missing are the tens of thousands of people issued citations for infractions, which are not included in the state tally.
Currently, Californians face a $100 ticket if caught with up to one ounce of marijuana, or for smoking it in public.
Californians can still face misdemeanors for transporting or giving away up to one ounce, possession of more than an ounce, possession by a minor, and possession of up to 8 grams of concentrate. Transporting and giving away an ounce or less of pot, as well as simple possession, would be legalized under Proposition 64.
In addition, Californians can face felonies for growing one or more marijuana plants or multiple charges of possession with intent to sell, while Proposition 64 makes it legal for individuals to grow up to six plants.
Even if Proposition 64 passes, it is likely some marijuana users will continue to face infractions or criminal charges. Californians can still get a ticket and fine of $100 if they are caught smoking marijuana in public, and a $250 fine is possible for using pot where tobacco smoking is illegal.
Possession on the grounds of a school, day-care center or youth center while children are present would also remain illegal.
“Crime will not go away under Prop. 64 and as we have seen in Colorado, people are still being arrested for breaking the law,” Acosta added.
A major part of the campaign for Proposition 64 has been that it addresses unfairness in the current enforcement of marijuana laws.
A study earlier this year by Drug Policy Action found that in 2010, some 16% of people arrested for marijuana possession in California were black, 41.5% were Latino, and 35.7% were white, even though California’s population is only 6.6% black, 38.4% Latino, and 39% white.
Even making possession an infraction could be a financial burden for low-income residents, because court fees can boost the $100 fine to hundreds of dollars.
The ballot measure represents hope for a clean slate for those convicted in the past, including Ingrid Archie of Los Angeles. She ended up going to jail for a probation violation when she was convicted of simple possession of marijuana in 2004.
The Drug Policy Action group plans to file papers to have Archie’s simple possession conviction removed from her record if Proposition 64 passes.
“It’s one more thing in my background that people won’t be able to judge me by,’’ Archie said.
She currently helps other women leaving prison through her work at the program A New Way of Life in Los Angeles. She says Proposition 64 would be good for the state and for people like her.
“It means being given a second chance and an opportunity to be useful in the community and not [being] behind bars,” she said.