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How to Navigate California's Drug Laws in 2019

California is one of the biggest and most populous states in the United States. With its numerous transportation hubs and shared border with Mexico, drugs flow in and out of the state regularly.

Numerous laws have been enacted over the years to curb the import of drugs into California, crack down on distribution and diversion within the state, and minimize drug abuse and drug-related crimes. Some of the types of laws regarding drugs in California are related to the following:

Further Reading

Penalties for drug-involved crimes in California range from fines to jail time. Laws regarding drug possession often do not target the actual issue though, which is often related to drug abuse and addiction.

The California Health Care Foundation (CHCF) publishes that around 8 percent of California residents battle addiction. California has several provisions in place that aim to get people into treatment programs and provide rehabilitation instead of criminal charges.

The landscape of drug abuse, addiction, and legal ramifications is constantly changing. It can be helpful to understand how to navigate the laws as they stand today in 2019.

lawmaker drafting legislation

Drug Possession, Distribution, and Trafficking Laws

In November 2014, Proposition 47 made changes to the Uniform Controlled Substances Act in California. This relaxed some of the drug possession laws, moving them from felony charges to misdemeanors, essentially decriminalizing "simple possession" of most illegal drugs.

In general, there are three main types of drug charges: infractions that do not typically involve jail time or major penalties, misdemeanors that involve minor penalties, and felonies that mean major jail time and harsh penalties. Under Proposition 47, possession of controlled substances for personal use, deemed "simple possession," is classified as a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to one year in county jail, community services, and/or a fine of up to $1,000.

Controlled substances fall under California Health and Safety Code 11350. Possession of the following for personal use are considered a violation of this code and a misdemeanor offense in California:

A secondary offense can increase the fine up to $2,000 (or community service) and bring up to two years in a county jail. A misdemeanor offense can become a felony if you are a registered sex offender or have been convicted of what is deemed a "serious" felony (assault, rape, attempted murder, voluntary manslaughter, robbery, burglary, bank robbery, murder, arson, carjacking, kidnapping, or first-degree burglary).

California has a "three strikes" program in place, which means that if you are charged with two felonies involving serious or violent offenses in the state, you may be subject to 25 years to life in prison on your third offense.

In addition to decriminalizing drug possession infractions, Proposition 47 also allows people currently serving time for a felony drug offense, or who have one on their record, to petition for the felony conviction to be reclassified as a misdemeanor.

Possession of a controlled substances (heroin, cocaine, or controlled prescription drugs) with the intent to sell, possession near a school, distribution of drugs, sale of drugs, selling or distributing drugs to minors, or drug trafficking offenses carry stricter penalties under California Health and Safety Code 11352. This can mean a felony charge and between three and five years of prison time at least.

Increased sentencing of between three and nine years of prison time can be added on if the drugs are transported to a non-contiguous California county. The involvement of minors in the sale or selling to a minor can increase the sentencing to three, six, or nine years in a California state prison.

Methamphetamine (meth), phencyclidine (PCP), and cannabis (marijuana) are classified differently and fall under different laws in California.

Drug enforcement agency logo

Laws Regarding Methamphetamine in California


Meth is a major drug threat in the state of California, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). As such, penalties related to meth possession, distribution, intent to sell, driving while under the influence, and manufacturing are harshly punished.

Meth is a dangerous synthetic stimulant drug that is made in clandestine laboratories (typically in Mexico) and then shipped across the southwest border (SWB) into Southern California. Laws involving meth also generally include PCP, ketamine (special K), gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB), and some anabolic steroids as well.

Simple possession of meth has been downgraded to a misdemeanor under Proposition 47, but any attempt to distribute, manufacture, or sell it is a felony offense, often ineligible for drug diversion programs. There are several laws involving meth.

California Health and Safety Code 23152(e): Driving while under the influence of meth is punishable by up to a year of jail time, and/or a fine of $390, revocation of driving privileges, and mandatory drug education class.

gavel and marijuana leaf

Marijuana Legalization: Current Laws in California


Voters in California voted to legalize recreational use of marijuana in November 2016 under Proposition 64, the Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act. This decriminalized personal possession and the growing of marijuana for adults aged 21 and over for personal use.

With Proposition 64, California became the eighth state in the United States to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana in private. Marijuana still remains illegal on a federal level.

Under Proposition 64, adults who are at least 21 years old can possess up to an ounce of marijuana for personal use. Adults can also grow up to six marijuana plants, out of view of the public in a private residence, for personal use. Adults are also able to buy up to one ounce of cannabis, or up to eight grams of cannabis concentrate (in the form of edibles), per day from a state-licensed recreational dispensary in California as of January 1, 2018.

Cannabis must be consumed in private residences. However, the cities of Oakland, Palm Springs, and San Francisco have issued permits that allow the opening of "cannabis lounges" where adults may consume cannabis on the premises, the Press Enterprise publishes. Proposition 64 dictates that landlords are allowed to decide if marijuana can be consumed on private property, and businesses can then apply for permits from the city of residence. Tobacco and alcohol are prohibited from being used at cannabis lounges.

It is illegal to drive while under the influence of marijuana. Senate Bill 65 and Senate Bill 94 also make it illegal to travel with an "open container" of marijuana while driving or to consume it while operating a vehicle, the Press Democrat explains. These laws took effect on January 1, 2018.

Marijuana possession is still considered a misdemeanor offense if the offender is under the age of 18, if possession occurs on school grounds, or if the person has more than 28.5 grams on their person. Marijuana possession becomes a felony offense if the perpetrator is aged 18 or older and selling or distributing the drug to minor. Sale or distribution to a minor between the ages of 14 and 17 carries a penalty of three to five years in prison, and selling or distributing to a minor under the age of 14 can land you between three and seven years in prison.

Under a new provision coming in 2019, Assembly Bill 1793 will help to identify people who have marijuana-related felonies on their record and overturn these felony charges. The Sacramento Bee publishes that close to 200,000 Californians may be impacted.

Another recent law, Senate Bill 1294, aims to help minority cannabis growers by allowing local jurisdictions to apply for technical assistance and waived license fees from the Bureau of Cannabis Control. The goal is to expand the commercial marijuana growing industry, opening it up to those with fewer financial means, the Sacramento Bee reports.

courtroom

California Drug Court and Diversion Programs


California has a thriving drug court system that helps to divert individuals who struggle with substance abuse and/or addiction from prisons and jails into treatment programs. Eligibility for diversion programs typically requires that the person be arrested for a nonviolent and drug-related offense for the first time.

These drug court programs can take the place of a traditional jail sentence. Often, upon completion of the program, charges are dropped.

In California, there are four main models of drug courts.

Drug courts help people get treatment for addiction instead of sending them to jail for offenses that are likely related to intoxication, addiction, and drug use. By managing the drug abuse and/or addiction, offenders are less likely to reoffend or commit future crimes.

Laws Regarding Prescription Drugs


In 2017, there were nearly 2,200 opioid overdose deaths in California, per the California Opioid Overdose Surveillance Dashboard. Opioid overdose deaths have reached epidemic levels all over the United States. There are a few laws that many states have enacted to manage the public health crisis.

One such law is the Good Samaritan Law, California Assembly Bill 635, which protects those who try to revive someone they believe to be suffering from an overdose from criminal prosecution. People can feel confident that they will not be charged with drug-related crimes if calling in a suspected overdose, even if they are in possession of controlled substances.

A standing order for naloxone is another law in California that opens up access to the potentially lifesaving medication. A standing order is a law that allows the medication to be dispensed through local pharmacies without requiring a prescription for it.

Naloxone is an opioid antagonist drug. By allowing more access to first responders and lay people, more opioid overdose fatalities can be prevented.

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References


Substance Use in California: A Look at Addiction and Treatment. (October 2018). California Health Care Foundation.

Proposition 47: The Safe Neighborhood and Schools Act. (2018). California Courts the Judicial Branch of California.

Health and Safety Code- HSC. (November 2014). California Legislative Information.

California Code, Health and Safety Code- HSC 11352. (2018). Find Law.

2017 National Drug Threat Assessment. (October 2017). Drug Enforcement Administration.

Health and Safety Code- HSC. (2017). California Legislative Information.

Health and Safety Code- HSC. (2013). California Legislative Information.

Health and Safety Code- HSC. (2014). California Legislative Information.

Health and Safety Code- HSC. (2015). California Legislative Information.

Section 11383.5. (2013). California Law.

Health and Safety Code- HSC. (2014). California Legislative Information.

Vehicle Code- VEH. (2016). California Legislative Information.

The Control, Regulate and Tax Adult Use of Marijuana Act. (2018). State of California.

The First Cannabis Lounge in Southern California is Coming to Palm Springs, and Neighbor isn't Pleased. (June 2018). Press Enterprise.

California to Begin Ban of Open Containers, Use of Cannabis on the Road. (December 2017). Press Democrat.

From Plastic Straws to Pet CPR: How New California Laws Could Change Your Life in 2019. (December 2018). Sacramento Bee.

New California Pot Law Aims to Help People the War on Drugs Hurt the Most. (September 2018). Sacramento Bee.

Drug Courts. (2018). Judicial Council of California.

Welcome to the California Opioid Overdose Surveillance Dashboard. (December 2018). California Department of Public Health.

Assembly Bill No. 635. (October 2013). California Legislative Council.

Statewide Standing Order for Naloxone. (September 2018). California Department of Public Health.