Citing the need to reduce spending on prosecution and courts, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a measure that makes marijuana possession an infraction, on par with traffic and littering tickets.
The Republican governor's unexpected support for the measure comes one month before voters decide whether to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana in California.
"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," wrote Schwarzenegger, who opposes Proposition 19, the marijuana initiative.
The law, which takes effect immediately, reduces possession of up to an ounce of marijuana - about the amount that will fit in a sandwich-size bag - from a misdemeanor to an infraction. Already, marijuana possession was the only misdemeanor under California law that didn't allow for jail time.
But the measure by State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, eliminates the need for police to book people caught with marijuana and for courts to hold jury trials on the matter. Those caught with the drug would not get a conviction of their criminal record.
Schwarzenegger, facing a $19 billion state budget deficit, also signed another bill this week aimed at saving the state money by keeping more people out of state prison. That measure raised the threshold for grand theft from $400 to $950.
The penalty for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana was already limited to a $100 fine and potential, court-mandated treatment. But the law's passage appears to reflect a gradual shift in the way Californians view marijuana, and the drug's treatment under the law.
If voters approve Prop. 19 next month, it would be legal for adults over the age of 21 to possess and use the drug. Even if the ballot measure fails, however, the approval of SB1449 indicates a slight thawing in long-standing opposition to legalization of the drug; and recent polls have shown growing support for Prop. 19 over just a few months.
While many politicians and law enforcement officials still rail against marijuana publicly, Leno noted that Superior Court judges suggested SB1449 and that it was backed by prosecutors and the state court system.
"There is a significant shift occurring," said Leno, who has served in the state Legislature since 2002. "This bill has been brought to the Legislature at least four times since I've been there ... and the great success this year was because we not only had the defense bar in support but also California District Attorneys Association and the Judicial Council. Everyone was of the same mind: This should be changed. ... The ball has moved down the field. "
The chief executive officer of the district attorney's group, however, stressed that marijuana remains unlawful under SB1449.
"We've always supported (this measure) because it has an impact on district attorneys who have to waste valuable resources sending people to court for misdemeanor. For a $100 fine, it's just not worth it - it is a waste of prosecutors' time," said Scott Thorpe.
The bill was opposed by several police officers associations, and passed both houses on largely party line votes. Prop. 19 opponents had mixed reactions.
Tim Rosales, the campaign manager for No on Proposition 19, argued that the new law "takes away the last reason anyone would have to vote for Prop 19," because it removes the argument by proponents that the state's marijuana laws cost too much to enforce and prosecute.
Brook Lowe, treasurer of Citizens Against Legalizing Marijuana, which is working against Prop. 19, worried about the new law's effect on children.
"It's really unfortunate," Lowe said. "It's going to allow kids, especially, to keep smoking pot and take away a chance to help them."
Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee, who originated Prop. 19, said he was mildly surprised Schwarzenegger signed the Leno bill but that it portends a larger trend. Supporters have also seized on costs and potential tax revenues to push the legalization measure.
"I think it's one more small victory," Lee said. "It's one more thing going our way that shows that what we're saying is right - it's a waste of law enforcement time and resources to go after people for cannabis."http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/10/01/BAR61FN4GC.DTL&tsp=1