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Most California voters say possessing small amount of illegal drugs should be misdemeanor, not felony

April 11, 2011 |  8:20 am

A marijuana joint.

Document: Read the report on the drug penalties in California A strong majority of California voters believe the penalty for possession of a small amount of an illegal drug for personal use should be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor, according to a poll released Monday by organizations seeking to relax drug laws.

DOCUMENT: Read the report on the drug penalties in California

The survey conducted by a professional polling firm found that almost 75% of California voters likely to cast ballots in 2012 believe the crime should be downgraded to a misdemeanor. And 40% went even further, saying they think it should be dropped to an infraction, which is the equivalent of a speeding ticket and carries no prison time.

The poll did not define what is considered a small amount of a drug. Possession of controlled substances, such as cocaine and heroin, is a felony, although charges are sometimes reduced. Marijuana is treated separately, and possession of an ounce or less is an infraction.

A majority of voters also said California sends too many people to prison. And almost 75% agreed that in the midst of a budget crisis, the state should instead use the millions of dollars spent to imprison drug users on schools, healthcare and law enforcement.

"The point here is that this is an overwhelming majority of California voters," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, the deputy state director for Southern California for the Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization that supports efforts to reduce drug sentences. "Californians don't want to waste money on incarcerating people for drug possession. They'd rather see that money go for something else."

The poll was released by the Drug Policy Alliance along with the ACLU of Northern California in San Francisco and the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland. It was designed and administered by Lake Research Partners, a Democratic polling firm.

Support for reducing drug possession penalties crosses party lines, drawing favor from substantial majorities of Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan voters. Most voters in every region of the state also back the change. Voters also indicated they are more inclined to reelect state lawmakers who vote to reduce the penalties for drug possession.

Nearly a quarter of the voters surveyed said Californians caught with a small amount of an illegal drug for personal use should not spend any time behind bars, while 27% said they should be locked up for less than three months. Just 8% suggested incarceration for a year or more.

The statewide poll surveyed 800 voters who intend to vote in the 2012 general election. They were questioned between March 21 and 24. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

The results and analysis can be viewed at www.lakeresearch.com.

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-- John Hoeffel

Photo: Support for reducing drug possession penalties crosses party lines, drawing favor from substantial majorities of Democratic, Republican and nonpartisan voters, the poll shows. Credit: Al Schaben / Los Angeles Times

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