California Voters OK Drug Defelonization, Reject Doctor Drug Testing

Voters in California enthusiastically approved an important sentencing reform initiative Tuesday, but overwhelmingly rejected an initiative that would have imposed drug testing on doctors in the state.

The sentencing initiative, Proposition 47, will change drug possession (and some other low-level non-violent offenses) from felonies to misdemeanors. It is viewed as a significant step in reducing mass incarceration and a retreat from the war on drugs. The popular vote in favor of Prop 47 comes just two years after voters approved another sentencing reform initiative, that one reforming the state's notorious "three strikes" law.

The failed initiative that would have imposed drug testing on doctors, Proposition 46, was drafted and backed by trial lawyers and was actually primarily about increasing the caps on medical malpractice liability payments. Drug testing doctors was added on after it proved popular in focus groups. Not surprisingly, Prop 46 was opposed by a powerful and deep-pocketed set of medical interests in what was one of the most expensive initiative campaigns in state history.

According to election figures from the California Secretary of State, with 45% of the vote counted just before midnight Tuesday, Prop 47 was winning with 56.6% of the vote, while Prop 46 was getting trounced with only 32.3%. [Update: With the rest of the votes counted, Prop 47 won with 58.7%, and Prop 46 lost with 32.8%.]

The Drug Policy Alliance, whose lobbying arm, Drug Policy Action, contributed to the smartly named Californians for Safe Neighborhoods and Schools "yes on Prop 47" campaign, pronounced itself pleased with the results.

"The overwhelming support for this reform sends a powerful message nationally, demonstrating that voters are not just ready but eager to reduce prison populations in ways that can enhance public safety," said DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann.

Under Prop 47, up to 20,000 people doing state prison time for simple drug possession will be eligible to seek sentence cuts, and new prison admissions should drop by between 40,000 and 60,000 a year. And hundreds of thousands of Californians with drug possession felony records will be eligible to have those records automatically expunged, removing barriers to employment, housing, public benefits, and educational opportunities.

The state's county jails, which are chafing under the state's corrections "realignment," will also see reductions in prisoners, with somewhere between 10,000 and 30,000 jail beds freed up by Prop 47. Counties look to save somewhere around half a billion dollars a year, according to a brief by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

"We’ve been trying to get simple drug possession reclassified as a misdemeanor through Sacramento for years, facing first an unwillingness from the legislature and then last year’s veto by Governor Brown," said DPA state director Lynne Lyman. "With Prop 47, California voters took the issue of smart justice into their own hands. If the people lead, the leaders will follow."

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