California Drug Possession Laws: An Overview

California Drug Possession Laws: An Overview
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California drug possession laws can be complicated, and the laws have changed in recent years. Understanding California drug laws can help people navigate this complex system and make educated legal decisions.

What Are Controlled Substances?

California drug possession laws address those drugs known as controlled substances. Some of these substances are always illegal to possess, such as cocaine and heroin.

Other controlled substances are legal to possess in some cases, but violate 2019 California drug possession laws in other cases. For example, someone who has a prescription for oxycodone may legally possess this substance and use it as prescribed. However, having these drugs without a prescription violates California Health & Safety Code Section 11350.

California drug possession laws categorize controlled substances into five schedules. Schedule I deals with drugs that have no known medicinal purpose, have a high risk of dependence and carry the largest penalties for violation. On the other end of the scale, Schedule V drugs are prescription drugs that are illegal without a prescription.

Some controlled substances are not explicitly named in the drug schedules, but are illegal based on other California laws. For example, methamphetamine is not named in the schedules, but is illegal to possess. Substances like these generally are treated like scheduled drugs in court.

Read More: Possession of Controlled Substance Laws: California Drug-Involved Laws

Cannabis Laws in California

Although cannabis is a Schedule I drug under federal law, it is not treated with this severity under California drug possession laws. In 2016, California voters passed Proposition 64, which legalizes the possession of marijuana, or cannabis, for adults aged 21 years or older.

Before Proposition 64, possession of marijuana was legal only with a prescription. However, California drug possession laws as of 2019 do not require adults who are of legal age to get prescriptions for cannabis. However, there are still some regulations regarding marijuana use. People may not:

  • Smoke the substance while driving or where smoking tobacco is prohibited.
  • Consume marijuana in public, except in designated places.
  • Possess more than 1 ounce of cannabis. 
  • Have more than 8 grams of concentrated cannabis.
  • Possess cannabis on school grounds, in day care centers or in youth centers anytime children are present.
  • Grow more than six marijuana plants without a permit.
  • Grow marijuana plants in unlocked and visible spaces.
  • Give or sell cannabis to people under the age of 21.

Businesses may get licenses to possess more than 1 ounce of marijuana, but individuals cannot legally carry this much. Also, while people can give marijuana to other of-age adults, selling the substance without a license remains illegal.

Californians should also note that cannabis remains illegal under federal law as of 2019. As such, federal prosecutors may file charges against those who use marijuana in ways that comply with California state law.

Misdemeanor California Drug Possession Laws

In 2014, voters in California approved of Proposition 47, which substantially changed California drug possession laws. This law addresses an offense called simple possession, which is the possession of controlled substances in amounts for personal use, not for distribution. Proposition 47 made most simple possession charges misdemeanors rather than felonies.

California drug distribution laws were not affected by this proposition. The difference between simple possession and possession with intent to sell is in the amount of the controlled substance a person has. However, while some states set specific limits on each type of controlled substance, California drug possession law does not.

It is up to law enforcement to determine whether a suspect meant to use the substance themselves or if the suspect should be charged under California drug distribution laws. This determination makes the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony, which changes the possible penalties.

In some cases, someone in California can possess only enough of a controlled substance for personal use and still get charged with a felony. If a person is on the sex offender registry or has a previous conviction of a serious felony, simple possession can be a felony in California. In this regard, serious felonies may include:

  • Assault.
  • Attempted murder.
  • Rape.
  • Robbery.
  • Arson.
  • Murder.
  • Kidnapping.
  • Carjacking.

If a person has two previous felony convictions, simple possession could count as the third in California's three strike law. This could carry a sentence of 25 years to life in prison.

Simple Possession Defenses

In order to be found guilty of simple possession in California, the prosecution must prove that the defendant:

  • Had control over the substance.
  • Knew that the controlled substance was present.
  • Understood that it was a drug.
  • Had a usable amount.

A person has control over a controlled substance if it is among the person's belongings. A person may also have control of a drug through another person, depending on the case. Two people may possess the same controlled substance at the same time, but simply agreeing to buy a drug does not count as possessing it.

Although prosecutors must prove knowledge of a substance, they do not have to show the court that the defendant knew exactly which drug it was. The term usable amount keeps people from being found guilty of having drug residue. In order to be found guilty, the person must possess enough of a drug to intoxicate him.

Defenses against simple possession charges often revolve around denying one of these ideas. For example, a defendant may claim that he did not know about the drugs or that they were in the possession of someone else. A common defense against certain drugs is that the defendant had a prescription. Finally, some people argue that law enforcement conducted an illegal search and seizure, invalidating the whole case.

Penalties for Simple Possession

When people are convicted of simple possession in California, they face different types of penalties based on their records and the court's discretion. The first time someone is convicted of simple possession, the court may order them to pay a fine of up to $1,000 and/or spend up to one year in county jail. People with felony sex crimes or serious felonies on their record may face a penalty of up to three years in jail for simple possession, unless the three strikes law applies.

When a person gets convicted of simple possession for a second time, she faces a fine of up to $2,000 and up to two years in jail. When people cannot pay the fine, they can often make up the difference through community service. Some defendants qualify for drug court instead of serving jail time. Courts may order them to complete substance abuse programs and remain drug free.

Immigrants may have additional penalties for simple possession. Depending on the immigration status and particulars of the case, such defendants may be deemed inadmissible or deportable. If any case falls under California drug distribution laws, as opposed to simple possession, the penalties can be much more severe. Not only do these charges count as felonies, but they often carry sentences of at least three to five years in state prison.

Proposition 47 and Older Convictions

Proposition 47 also affects people who were previously convicted of simple possession and felony charges. No matter how old the case is, such people can petition the court to have their convictions reclassified as misdemeanors. If the person has a serious felony or a sex crime charge, this may not be successful. However, others with simple possession felonies can significantly change their job prospects by reducing the crime to a misdemeanor. People who are currently serving time for simple possession as a felony may even shorten their sentences.

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