The drug possession convictions of five California prison inmates who had their sentences extended after marijuana was found in their cells have been overturned. The ruling, which was made by the Court of Appeal for the Third Appellate District in Sacramento, was released on June 11. The Attorney General's Office has not yet announced whether it plans to appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.
California voters chose to legalize the recreational use of marijuana by passing Proposition 64 in 2016. The panel of three appeals judges hearing the case determined that marijuana's revised status meant that prisoners could no longer be guilty of a crime for possessing an ounce or less of the drug. However, they also pointed out that the consumption of marijuana by state inmates remains illegal and could lead to additional sanctions. An attorney from the Sacramento County Public Defender's Office praised the ruling and said that it would save taxpayers money. It costs the state between $50,000 and $75,000 to incarcerate an inmate for a year according to the public defender.
A California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokesperson said that the agency was still reviewing the ruling. However, she made clear that drug use by inmates would not be tolerated. The judges based their ruling on the plain language of Proposition 64 and reiterated the legal principle that no law can have an intent that is not expressed in words. Proposition 64 allows California residents to possess up to an ounce of marijuana. Possession of the drug is still forbidden under federal law.
Even minor drug possession cases can lead to major penalties. This is why someone who has been charged with possession may want to reach out to an attorney. Legal counsel could bring up the issue of evolving societal attitudes toward narcotics when urging prosecutors to consider leniency.