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A new poll finds that 70 percent of Californians support lighter penalties for personal drug use

State Senator Mark Leno wants to reduce the number of drug offenders in jail.
State Senator Mark Leno wants to reduce the number of drug offenders in jail.
The San Francisco Sentinel

According to a new poll by Tulchin Research in San Francisco, 70 percent of Californians want to reduce the penalties for personal drug use. 

The poll was commissioned by supporters of California State Senator Mark Leno's new bill, SB 1506, which would make simple drug possession a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year behind bars as well as fines and probation. At the moment, possession of most drugs carries a felony, which means more time behind bars and lifelong labeling as a "felon," which comes with its own societal penalties. 

In 2010, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger essentially de-criminalized recreational marijuana under state law when he reduced possession of an ounce or less from a misdemeanor to an infraction. Personal use of other drugs, however--like heroin, cocaine, concentrated canabis, methamphetamines, and quaaludes —consistently carries high penalties, up to 1-3 years behind bars.  

On a press call today, Senator Leno said that 13 other states and the federal government have already reduced the penalty for drug possession. He also said that those states tend to have higher participation rates in drug treatment programs. While Leno touted cost savings from the bill, estimated by the Legislative Analysts Office at $1 billion over 5 years, he said the bill was not just about money. 

"Our motivation is first and foremost to have safer communities," Leno said.

Pollster Ben Tulchin said he found widespread support in his survey of 800 likely California voters. Tulchin said it's rare for him to find bipartisan support and cross-regional support for political issues in California.

Tulchin also said that crime is polling low — "nowhere on voters' register" — with Californians mostly concerned with the state budget deficit, the economy, and education. 

Tulchin said those polled consistently agreed that California's jails, now stressed with prison realignment, are overcrowded and that minor drug offenders belong elsewhere. 

Leno's bill creates a funding stream for rehabilitation programs and incentives for offenders to opt for probation and treatment.