Drug Reform: Coming Soon in CA?

Drug Reform: Coming Soon in CA?

Earlier this week, a proposal was presented in California that would reduce the charge for possession of heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine, from a felony to a misdemeanor.

The Senate Public Safety Committee voted 4-2 to approve measure SB 156.

Wait…so…..the public safety peeps in the California senate think that the decriminalization of drugs is…good for public safety?

Without a doubt.

Here’s the deal.  As the law stands right now, possession of these “hard” drugs is absolutely fatal for users.  Let’s say you’re a cocaine addict.  You get nabbed with an 8-ball, you’re definitely going to have some consequences, like jail (or even prison), drug programs, possibly community labor, or some combination thereof.  But the truly insurmountable part of the sentence is the formal probation.  Formal probation means that your probationary period is “supervised” by the court and by a probation officer.  This means that with any little slip up, your butt is going right back into jail or prison.  Each time you slip up, the judges and prosecutors become increasingly less patient with you, and the penalties become harsher and harsher.

Formal probation is a vicious cycle for heroin, meth, and coke users.  Because of the chemical effect on their systems, the urge to use is stronger than any other urge, want, or need (like following the law, orders of the court or probation, eating, sleeping, or having meaningful relationships with others).  On formal probation, there are just too many ways for the users to violate: getting arrested with drugs in their possession; failing a random drug screening; committing some other crime related to their drug use (robbery, burglary, DUI).

Some might say, “OK, isn’t having drug-using criminals ‘on the hook’ for their behavior a good thing? Getting drug users off the streets and into prison means less drugs on the street and less crime in our communities, right?”


Putting a user in the penal system is pretty much like putting a hamster on a hamster wheel.  He’s gonna’ just run and run and run until he’s got nothing left in the tank.  On formal probation, the user won’t be any more inclined to stay out of trouble because of the potential for incarceration.  On the contrary, because he knows that incarceration is all but a sure bet for any misstep, he will go about finding and using drugs with brazen, callous disregard for his community and for the people around him.  He’ll use and use and use and use until he’s back in prison.

These users aren’t just users.  They’re addicts.

The idea of treating addiction with formal probation and the threat of jail time makes about as much sense as fighting the obesity epidemic with liposuction.  Extra fat may be what’s visible, but the dangerous cholesterol levels, unhealthy relationships with food, and diabetes lurking in the wings are still very, very dangerous, and very, very costly to society.

Addicts need treatment.  Not jail.  Whether addicts are wreaking havoc on our streets or rotting in jail, our current (and very flawed) system does not adequately address the stuff making them addicts—the emotional stuff, the family stuff, the societal stuff.  Reducing possession of these now “major” drug possession crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor will take these addicts off of the formal probation hamster wheel, and onto a path of addiction treatment and true recovery.  These addicts will get a chance to change the destructive patterns in their lives without the fear of long prison terms.

It costs about $47,000 per year to house an inmate in California.  $47,000!!  Imagine if an addict received $47,000 per year of counseling, treatment, community intervention, healthy lifestyle coaching, yoga, and other ways to break the vicious cycle of addiction. Hopefully, SB 156 will be adopted and that money can provide treatment for those addicts who so desperately need it.  Then we can begin addressing the underlying problems so pervasive in our jails, prisons, and communities.  Then, we can really improve public safety.