Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who opposes legalization of marijuana for recreational use, has approved legislation downgrading possession of an ounce or less from a misdemeanor to an infraction.
Supporters say the change will keep marijuana-related cases from becoming court-clogging jury trials, even though the penalty will remain a fine of up to $100, with no jail time. Violations will not go on a person's record as a crime.
"I am signing this measure because possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is an infraction in everything but name," Schwarzenegger wrote in a message released after he signed the bill. "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."
Randy Thomasson, president of the family values group SaveCalifornia.com, criticized the move by Schwarzenegger, who was shown smoking a marijuana joint in the 1977 documentary "Pumping Iron."
"This virtual legalization of marijuana definitely sends the wrong message to teenagers and young adults," Thomasson said in a statement Friday. "It invites youth to become addicted to mind-altering pot because there's not much hassle and no public stigma and no rehab if they're caught."
Dale Gieringer, director of California NORML, which supports legalization, said the opposite.
"Gov. Schwarzenegger deserves credit for sparing the state's taxpayers the cost of prosecuting minor pot offenders," Gieringer said in a statement. "Californians increasingly recognize that the war on marijuana is a waste of law enforcement resources."
The new law, SB 1449 by Sen. Mark Leno (D- San Francisco), takes effect Jan 1.
The governor's action immediately became a point of contention in the campaigns for and against Proposition 19 on the statewide November ballot, which would legalize marijuana for recreational use. Schwarzenegger opposes the measure.
"This new law takes away the last reason anyone would have to vote for Proposition 19," said Tim Rosales, campaign manager for No on Proposition 19.
He said some proponents have claimed that California's marijuana laws lead to jail and a waste of law enforcement and court resources that could be better spent on more serious crimes.
"Now that possession has been codified as a simple infraction, they can no longer make that spurious case," Rosales said.
However, Gieringer said that without Proposition 19, the state will still spend large amounts of money on enforcing and prosecuting cases of distribution and cultivation of marijuana. In addition, he said, the state would benefit from legalization because it could then tax marijuana.