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California Marijuana Possession Laws

Dec 04 2015, by Jessica McElfresh in Drug Crimes, Legal Blog, Marijuana Charges

Governor Schwarzenegger signed Senate Bill 1449 into law on October 1, 2010. The bill was one of several legislative initiatives about marijuana introduced in the wake of the 1996 Compassionate Use Act (CUA), which made the use and cultivation of marijuana for medical purposes legal.

Under the CUA’s original legal framework, medical marijuana users could still be charged with possession or cultivation of marijuana—but they could assert the legality of possessing or growing marijuana for medical purposes as a defense to their charges. However, the recently passed SB 266 tightens the legal framework to state that qualified patients and caregivers are exempt from prosecution for legitimate medical marijuana activities.

Rather than addressing medical marijuana, the purpose of SB 1449 is to decriminalize the recreational use of marijuana. While still officially illegal, the penalty for marijuana possession became less serious than for other narcotics under SB 1449.

Personal possession of marijuana is now a civil infraction in California punishable only by a fine. But it’s important to remember that harsh penalties still exist for the illegal cultivation of marijuana or the possession with intent to sell.

SB 1449 Lessens the Penalties for the Marijuana Possession

If you get caught in possession of marijuana, and cannot assert the medical marijuana defense, then you may face a misdemeanor conviction for possession of amounts in excess of 1 ounce. SB 1449 provides the following penalties:

  • For amounts less than 1 ounce, you will face a $100 fine
  • For amounts greater than 1 ounce, you may face a fine of up to $500 and a maximum jail sentence of six months
  • For any amount of concentrated cannabis, such as hashish or oil, the penalty may reach one year in jail along with a $500 fine

SB 1449 provides specific penalties for the possession of marijuana on school grounds:

  • When an adult possesses an ounce or less of marijuana on school property, the penalty may reach $500 and / or ten days in jail
  • When a minor does the same, he or she may face a fine of $250 for the first offense, and a fine of $500 along with possible commitment to juvenile hall for a second offense

One benefit of SB 1449 is that a conviction for marijuana possession in California will no longer be entered into your criminal record. One of the drawbacks, however, is that possession cases are no longer argued before a jury. This means that your chance of receiving a penalty could depend on the particular judge who hears your case.

The Future of Marijuana Laws in California

At the time that SB 1449 became law, many thought that California voters would approve Proposition 19, which would have made marijuana legal for recreational purposes. Unfortunately, the initiative was defeated, so anyone using marijuana for recreational reasons can face a civil infraction or criminal charges, depending on the amount of marijuana you are alleged to have possessed.

On January 1, 2016, SB 266 will come into effect and create a whole new legal framework for medical marijuana in California. One of its provisions is to exempt medical marijuana license holders from criminal prosecution. Thus, the penalties of SB 1449 will apply only to recreational users.

Jessica McElfresh is a San Diego criminal defense attorney with significant experience handling marijuana cases. If you’ve been charged with a marijuana offense or any other crime, you can call McElfresh Law today at (858) 756-7107 for a free and confidential consultation of your case.

California marijuana laws change frequently. For updated information, see the following pages: Medicinal Uses of Marijuana and Recreational Marijuana Business