Bill could reduce felony drug charges

Published: Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 4A

San Francisco Democratic Sen. Mark Leno has introduced a bill to redefine simple possession of drugs – essentially, having a small amount for personal use – from a felony to a so-called "wobbler," meaning that district attorneys would have the flexibility to charge a defendant with either a misdemeanor or a felony.

The measure would not affect sentencing for marijuana. Simple possession of marijuana is an infraction, which is less severe than a misdemeanor.

In a conference call Wednesday detailing Senate Bill 649, Leno said altering the sentencing guidelines was an alternative to a "failed and expensive war on drugs" that he said has fed soaring incarceration rates.

He argued that locking up low-level drug offenders on felony charges sustains a vicious cycle in which those users become more likely to commit additional crimes, "perpetuating an underclass of citizens."

A similar bill, Senate Bill 1506, died last session under opposition from the California District Attorney Association and law enforcement groups. Leno said the prospects are brighter this time around because his proposal doesn't dictate which crimes should be charged as misdemeanors, instead giving counties discretion to choose.

The District Attorneys Association hasn't yet taken a stance on the bill. Cory Salzillo, its director of legislation, said that while the increased sentencing flexibility would be an improvement, he is still wary.

"I still think some of our concerns would apply," Salzillo said, particularly that "it sends the message that drug possession is not as serious as it used to be."

– Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau

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