Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed legislation that will reduce the crime of possession of an ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction, handing a victory to marijuana advocates one month before November's state vote to legalize pot for recreational use.
The governor's signature of Senate Bill 1449 by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, will not reduce actual penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. Under California law, misdemeanor possession of less than an ounce was already punishable as infraction - with offenders facing fines of $100.
Marijuana advocates say the governor's decision to sign the bill will significantly reduce the number of cases clogging California courts by removing the misdemeanor tag.
The law will take effect Jan. 1, meaning it may be superseded - at least for Californians over 21 - by the November legalization measure.
Schwarzenegger said he signed Leno's bill because "possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is infraction in everything but name."
Yet despite signing the bill, Schwarzenegger said he strongly opposes the Proposition 19 measure to legalize marijuana for recreational use for California adults over 21, allow small residential cultivation and permit local cities and counties to tax retail pot sales.
"I am opposed to decriminalizing the possession and recreational use of marijuana and oppose Proposition 19," the governor said in his bill signing statement. "Unfortunately, Proposition 19 is a deeply flawed measure...that will adversely impact California's businesses without bringing in the tax revenues to the state promised by its proponents."
Dale Gieringer, California director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, says the governor's signature cemented the first reduction of marijuana penalties in California in 35 years. In 1975, the state decriminalized minor marijuana possession by imposing the misdemeanor and maximum $100 fine.
Gieringer said misdemeanor defendants still needed to be processed by the court system.
"Gov. Schwarzenegger deserves credit for sparing the state's taxpayers the cost of prosecuting minor pot offenders," he said in a statement. "Californians increasingly recognize that the war on marijuana is a waste of law enforcement resources."
Some law enforcement lobbyists fought the legislation, arguing that it took power away from judges and prosecutors to reduce misdemeanor offenses to citations in exchange for defendants going into drug treatment.
The bill signing was protested in a statement Friday by Dr. Paul Chabot, founder of the Coalition for a Drug Free California.
"It is disturbing and disappointing that the California governor would sign such a law. This sends the wrong message to kids and communities," he said.