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Senate panel supports lesser penalties for heroin, meth possession

April 17, 2012 |  3:42 pm

Sen. Mark LenoA proposal to reduce the charge for possession of heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine from a felony to a misdemeanor in California was approved Tuesday by a Senate panel whose members said it was better to send users to drug treatment than prison.

The Senate Public Safety Committee voted 4-2 for the measure, which is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP and would have California follow the lead of 13 other states.

Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) said drug users who get help are less likely to commit more crimes than those sentenced to long prison terms. "Without this bill they are not going to get treatment," Leno told the committee. "These longer incarcerations don’t do any good."

SB 1506, which still needs approval of the full Senate and Assembly, was also supported by San Francisco Dist. Atty. George Gascón, who said that requiring long prison sentences for drug users creates a "vicious cycle that does not further public safety."

But the measure was opposed by the California State Sheriffs’ Assn. and California District Attorneys Assn. based on concern that using controlled substances can lead to property crime and violence.

"We think this is too far, too fast and we think it’s a public safety mistake," said Nick Warner, legislative director for the sheriffs’ group. Opponents also said drug users would have less incentive to refrain from use or agree to drug treatment if they know prosecutors cannot charge them with a felony.

"One of my biggest concerns about this; are we losing the hammer to get people to comply?" asked Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego), who voted against the bill.


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Photo: Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), pictured at right during a recent budget committee hearing, wants to reduce possession of heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine from a felony to a misdemeanor. Credit: Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press.