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New State Law Decriminalizes Possession of Marijuana

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While drug seizures continue to grow along the US-Mexico border, California has downgraded the penalty for simple marijuana possession.

— One of hundreds of new state laws taking effect in 2011 did not legalize marijuana, but it does make possession of small amounts a lesser crime.

There’s now a $100 fine for possessing up to 1 ounce or less of pot, and what was once charged as a misdemeanor is downgraded to an infraction. This means that the penalty for getting caught with the drug in small amounts will be the same as a fine for a minor traffic violation.

The new law is expected to have a big impact on the state legal system, diverting thousands of pot cases from overburdened courts. It will also save money for the state and change local policing efforts.

But the law will also affect current programs for the prevention and treatment of drug addictions. San Diego County's Chief Probation Officer, Mack Jenkins, says the penalty will make drug addiction of all kinds more difficult to manage for the state.

"My concern with minimizing some penalties to a drug like marijuana is that it makes the task of those people who are already drug involved that much more difficult to get clean and sober," said Jenkins.

In November, California voters turned back Prop. 19, which would have legalized recreational marijuana use. Under the new state law, possession of more than 1 ounce of marijuana continues to be a crime.

"From our perspective, from a probations standpoint, we look at the totality of drug addicted individuals,” said Jenkins. “I really think that's the lens that it should be viewed in—not whether marijuana is or isn’t decriminalized, but whether it helps people who are at risk for addiction issues."

Among other things, the new penalty is expected to help address the racial disparity in marijuana arrests in Southern California, where African Americans are more than three times as likely to be charged for possession than whites, despite having lower rates of marijuana use.

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