Voters upset at last week’s failure of Proposition 19 (to legalize marijuana) can take heart– in a quiet move shortly before the election state lawmakers decriminalized possession of less than 28.5 grams of marijuana. Senate Bill 1449, effective January 1, 2011, makes possession of marijuana a mere infraction, giving the offense the same legal weight as a traffic ticket. Unlike a traffic ticket, however, where fines can exceed $300, marijuana possession carries a simple $100 fine as a penalty. First time offenders may still be sent to a drug diversion and have the charge dismissed.
The maximum penalty prior to this legislation was $100 fine, but the crime was charged as a misdemeanor, which meant defendants charged with the offense had a drug criminal record. Many lost their jobs or government benefits as a result. Because it was a misdemeanor, it meant defendants were eligible for a public defender and a jury trial as well. In approving the legislation, Governor Schwarzenegger explained that the “only difference is that because it is a misdemeanor, a criminal defendant is entitled to a jury trial and a defense attorney. 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.”
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