Thursday, July 18, 2024

California Fights Back As Jeff Sessions Escalates War On Drugs

While U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions escalates the war on drugs, drug policy reform surges ahead in California, joining states such as Washington and New York, where similar innovative approaches to some of our greatest challenges, like drug overdose deaths and mass incarceration, are being pioneered.

The Drug Policy Alliance had another successful day in the California state legislature, with two more bills passing through the first house committee, AB 1578 and SB 180. These bills join the agenda with two others bills that passed through their first house committees in preceding weeks.

AB 1578 successfully passed in a 5-2 committee vote, and will now move to the full Assembly. AB 1578, authored by Los Angeles Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, will protect Californians who are operating lawfully under California state laws, by providing that absent a court order, local and state agencies, including regulators and law enforcement, shall not assist in any federal enforcement against state authorized medical cannabis or commercial or noncommercial marijuana activity. DPA’s California State Director Lynne Lyman testified at Tuesday’s Assembly Public Safety Hearing, saying:

“AB 1578 is intended to prevent federal government over-reach in the era of Trump. We do not want the federal government harassing, intimidating or prosecuting people who are operating lawfully under state law.”

Also having its first hearing Tuesday was SB 180 by Senator Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles, passing 5-2 out of Senate Public Safety. Dubbed the RISE Act, (Repeal of Ineffective Sentencing Enhancements Act), Mitchell’s bill would repeal the three-year sentencing enhancements that are tacked onto new convictions for petty drug possession for sale or sale cases. These enhancements are the leading cause of long sentences that create crisis-level overcrowding in county jails.

Enhancement and mandatory minimums are central to the failed drug war that has done nothing to reduce the availability of drugs or to deter illegal drug sales. This enhancement disproportionately impacts the poorest and most marginalized people in our communities — those with substance use, mental health needs, and people of color. By removing this enhancement, SB 180 will remove one of the mechanisms that increase racial disparities within the criminal justice system, and free funds that can be reinvested in community programs that improve the quality of life and reduce crime. SB 180 will next be considered by the full Senate.

For the first time ever in the United States, a state bill to authorize safe consumption services passed a legislative vote. AB 186, authored by Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman of Stockton, co-sponsored by DPA and leading health policy and drug treatment associations, would allow local jurisdictions to permit supervised consumption services and provide legal protections for the programs and participants. Participants use pre-obtained drugs under supervision of medical professionals.

Supervised consumption services prevent overdose deaths, improve public order, and link people to treatment and other services. Around 100 exist around the world, but none yet in the United States. AB 186 goes to the Assembly Public Safety Committee next. San Francisco has recently established a task force to develop a policy recommendation on placement of services in the city. This bill protects local jurisdictions that want to pilot these life-saving programs.

Also on DPA’s winning ticket is AB 208 by Eggman, a bill to provide equal protection to immigrants who seek drug treatment diversion for drug misdemeanors. Under current law, persons accused of possession of a small amount of drugs for personal use must plead guilty in order to access court ordered drug treatment. When they complete the program, their records are cleaned. However, the federal government response to the guilty plea is to deport the defendant or deny re-entry, even for legal residents, combat veterans, and family members of legal residents. Even for those who successfully complete the programs, the guilty plea hangs over their head forever.

This bill would allow the court to refer a person to treatment before a plea is entered, and if the person succeeds they move on with their life, and should they fail the charges are reinstated. It passed the Assembly Public Safety Committee on March 14, and is currently under consideration in the Appropriations Committee.

Lynne Lyman is the California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

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