CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS GOVERNOR : Wilson Explains Shift on Pot Penalties

TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

Pete Wilson on Monday received an apt reminder of the dangers of resuscitating an age-old issue to rally new generations of campaign troops: Voting records don't always play along.

On Monday, for example, the Republican gubernatorial candidate renewed his call for California to recriminalize marijuana, turning simple possession of small amounts of marijuana back into a felony. Since 1976, marijuana possession has been a misdemeanor punishable by a $100 fine.

But in that attempt to ride the substantial anti-drug sentiment of the electorate, Wilson had to answer one touchy question--why he, as a state assemblyman in 1968, voted to give judges the discretion to impose misdemeanor penalties on those convicted of marijuana possession, rather than being required to invoke tougher felony strictures.

The vote, Wilson said Monday, "has proved to be a mistake."

The senator said he voted for the 1968 bill because he was concerned at the time that young and casual marijuana users might have their lives ruined by a felony drug conviction.

"The rationale at the time, which I think was commonly accepted, was that marijuana is not in the same category with the dangerous controlled substances--which it is not, no one is disputing that. And that we are not eager to blight anybody's life and will leave it to the discretion of the judge," he said.

"We were trying to achieve a sobering penalty for a young user without creating the kind of criminal record that would be a serious problem for him on through life," Wilson added.

But that was then; this is now. Now, the Republican nominee said, he believes that such a law sends a mixed message to youngsters who may be tempted to indulge in drugs.

Wilson also noted that pharmacologists and police agencies have in the intervening two decades seen stronger marijuana introduced and have come to see the drug as a first step for people who become addicted to more dangerous substances.

"If you look at the history of most drug users, most of them began with pot. It is the gateway drug," he said. "It is itself far less dangerous--no question, no dispute about that."

Wilson's change of heart on the issue of how to handle drug convictions is hardly isolated. The bill he supported two decades ago was sponsored by another Republican and signed into law by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, whose wife, Nancy, was later to personify the "just say no" approach to preventing drug abuse. The bill also toughened the law on possession of LSD, making it a felony.

At the time, the discretionary elements of the bill were backed by police officers and district attorneys, who argued that the mandatory felony conviction was such a strict sentence that judges and juries were acquitting first-time users rather than convicting them. The ability to convict on a misdemeanor level, they argued, would actually raise the number of convictions.

Drug abuse and the tightening of state laws hammering drug sellers have been strong elements of Wilson's general election campaign for governor, as he seeks the support of California voters concerned about crime.

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