Ticket to Freedom

Starting in January, possession of less than one ounce will be the same as a traffic citation

By Arrissia Owen Turner

Last month Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill downgrading possession of less than an ounce of marijuana to an infraction instead of a misdemeanor. The new law basically makes possession of marijuana similar to a traffic citation. Cultivation and sale for non-medical use remain criminal offenses.

The bill Schwarzenegger signed, SB 1449, was written by Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco). Leno introduced the bill to keep marijuana-related cases from clogging up the court system. The penalty includes a fine of up to $100, but with no jail time or trial. The law takes effect Jan. 1, 2011, and proponents say it will significantly reduce court costs.

The governor, who staunchly opposed Proposition 19 (that would legalize recreational use of marijuana for adults over 21), told reporters he passed SB 1449 because of the stress on the court system that the state budget cannot support.

“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,” Schwarzenegger said.

Bruce Margolin, director of Los Angeles NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws), says the law is not a sign that politicians are easing up on their disdain for marijuana.

“It’s just an example of how much the government worries about how much money something is costing because of the state budget problem,” Margolin tells Culture. “They are trying to impress the public.”

It might work when it comes to the bottom line. Many people who are ticketed will most likely pay the fine and not fight it in court without the threat of criminal charges, Margolin says.

What the governor may have also done though was influence the public that headed to the polls. Margolin says the media has reinforced the opinion that marijuana prohibition is not worth the cost to taxpayers.

Laws restricting marijuana use started creeping up in most states during the early 20th century. By the 1930s, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics criminalized the drug.

Because marijuana was transported from Mexico, marijuana became an issue in Southwest states quickly leading to California prohibiting the sale and possession of marijuana as early as 1915. Cannabis use was attributed to everything from crime and violence to sexual deviancy and laziness.

Schwarzenegger’s signature on SB 1449 is the first reduction in penalties for pot possession since 1975 when the state decriminalized minor marijuana possession by making it a misdemeanor with a $100 maximum fine.

In 1991, Dennis Peron started the drive to legalize marijuana use for medicinal purposes. He organized Prop P, the San Francisco medical marijuana initiative, which passed with nearly 80 percent of the vote.

Prop P declared the city’s support for the use of medicinal marijuana. Not long after, two state bills were approved in the California legislature only to be vetoed by then-Governor Pete Wilson.

Peron and company organized Californians for Compassionate Use, which collected enough signatures to get the initiative on the coming ballot. Critics said the proposition was too vague and would allow for unchecked marijuana cultivation. Proponents fought for sick people to have access to the drug for pain relief, nausea and other ailments.

In 1996, Prop 215 passed into state law by a narrow margin, allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for medical ailments. The law made California the first state to legalize the possession of and cultivation of medical marijuana for prescription holders. The act added Section 11362.5 to the California Health and Safety Code.

In March of 2009, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Obama administration would no longer pursue prosecution of medical marijuana distributors.

Which brings us to SB 1449 weakening the government’s hold on marijuana prohibition.

“I think our society is sophisticated enough and studies the population enough to know the difference between marijuana and hard drugs like cocaine, heroin and PCP,” Margolin says.

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