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Assembly rejects lighter penalty for growing pot

The Assembly this week rejected a bill that would’ve reduced marijuana cultivation from a felony – punishable by 16 months, two years or three years in state prison – to a “wobbler” that can be filed either as a felony or as a misdemeanor punishable by a year in county jail.

AB 1017, by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, failed Wednesday on a 24-36 vote. Assemblymembers Susan Bonilla, D-Concord; Mary Hayashi, D-Castro Valley; and Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, voted for it, while Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda, opposed it and Assemblywomen Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, and Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, didn’t vote.

Swanson said the communities he represents is struggling with a severe drug crisis, and the bill would’ve moved California in the wrong direction.

“If we really want comprehensive drug reform, we can’t just relax certain portions of the laws around marijuana cultivation and use. We need to address the issue comprehensively through federal law,” he said, adding he fears the bill sends the wrong message to kids, that recreational marijuana use is acceptable. “This is not appropriate, especially when federal law continues to prosecute the crime, with a disproportionate effect on communities of color. You can’t address these issues in a vacuum, particularly where our state law comes into conflict with the federal.”

He said he’ll remain open-minded on the issue, “but as long as I see marijuana use preventing many of our young people from getting employed because they can’t pass drug tests, and all of the other adverse and negative impacts by accepting this drug as recreational, it clearly isn’t the time to start lessening the restrictions on its cultivation or use. The consequences of making this a recreational drug –- or creating the perception that we are trending that way by lessening the restrictions — has long-term and significant consequences I am not prepared support.”

Reconsideration of the bill was granted Thursday, but it was ordered to the Assembly’s inactive file at the request of Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon, D-Montebello.

Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton, was the lone GOP vote in support of the bill, which was sponsored by Mendocino County District Attorney C. David Eyster and supported by the California Public Defenders Association and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“The state legislature has once again demonstrated its incompetence when it comes to dealing with prison crowding,” California NORML Director Dale Gieringer said in a news release. “With California under court order to reduce its prison population, it is irresponsible to maintain present penalties for non-violent drug offenses. It makes no sense to keep marijuana growing a felony, when assault, battery, and petty theft are all misdemeanors. Legislators have once again caved in to the state’s law enforcement establishment, which has a vested professional interest in maximizing drug crime.”

The bill was opposed by the California District Attorneys Association, California Narcotics Officers’ Association, California Police Chiefs Association and California State Sheriffs’ Association.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.