Senate backs misdemeanor charges for heroin, cocaine possession

State Sen. Mark Leno is the author of a bill allowing possession of heroin and other hard drugs to be charged as misdemeanors.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

SACRAMENTO -- The state Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would allow prosecutors to file misdemeanor instead of felony charges in cases of simple possession of heroin, cocaine and other hard drugs.

State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) said he introduced the measure based on the experience of other states that allow misdemeanor filings for hard drugs.

“In these 13 other states we can document that there is higher participation in drug treatment,” Leno said. “As a result there is lower drug use. As a result, there is less violent and property crime in these 13 other states.”


Leno sponsored a bill last year that would have required hard-drug possession be charged as a misdemeanor, but that measure was rejected after law enforcement officials said it took away their leverage to get drug users to go into treatment and other programs.

“They need the hammer, the threat of a felony, to make sure certain people go into treatment,” Leno said.

Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood) said the current law disproportionately affects minority youths.

“If drug arrests were occurring in other communities as they do in Compton and South Los Angeles, this would have been the law 100 years ago,” Wright said of the Leno bill.

Among the opponents was Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber), who said the county jails are already full, so drug users know that a misdemeanor conviction will likely result in little or no time served.

“They know they don’t have to go to treatment. They can walk away and there is no consequence,” Nielsen said. “This particular bill will reward that continued criminality.”

Sen. Ted Gaines (R-Rocklin) noted the bill is opposed by the California Police Chiefs Assn. because people convicted of drug offenses can already go into treatment programs rather than jail under Proposition 36.

Gaines said one answer is to build more jail and prison cells.

Leno noted the bill could save the state and counties up to $163 million.

The vote was 23-14, with Democratic Sens. Alex Padilla of Pacoima, Lou Correa of Santa Ana and Richard Roth of Riverside joining Republicans in opposing the measure.


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