Change is never comfortable, but often so necessary. 2014 was a year of change in drug policy laws in California, change that moves us towards drug policies that are grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights.
It was a banner year for the Drug Policy Alliance in California, having Gov. Jerry Brown sign our bills instead of veto them, stopping problematic bills from even getting to his desk, and supporting other drug laws amended through the budget process and the ballot.
Here's a recap:
· After 10 years of failed attempts, we eliminated the disparity between crack and powder cocaine in the state, codifying the California Fair Sentencing Act (SB1010), authored by Black Caucus Chair Sen. Holly Mitchell, which takes effect Jan. 1 2015. Leading a coalition of 12 cosponsors ranging from the NAACP to the National Council of La Raza, we garnered nearly 200 letters of support from civil rights groups, drug treatment providers, legal scholars, faith leaders, drug law reformers, human rights advocates and sitting California district attorneys. Among other favorable editorials, we won the LA Times editorial board support.
· We made sterile syringes available at pharmacies in every County, again; the 2011 DPA bill allowing this was to sunset end of 2014. Partnering with the SF AIDS Foundation, DPA passed the Sterile Syringe Access at CA Pharmacies (AB1743) that allows people to purchase sterile syringes without a prescription, continuing a highly effective HIV and hepatitis prevention program, and it lifted the arbitrary cap on the number of syringes people can purchase, thereby lifting the cap on the number of syringes people are allowed to legally possess.
· We made naloxone, the opiate overdose reversal drug, available behind the counter at CA pharmacies. Approved by the FDA in the 1970s, naloxone reverses opiate overdoses, and is key to our campaign to reduce overdose deaths, which are now the leading cause of accidental death in the US. DPA partnered with the CA Pharmacists Association to pass AB1535, which will allow people to walk into a participating pharmacy and acquire naloxone and a short training on how to use it.
· We defeated bad marijuana legislation. DPA worked with allies to first offer amendments and eventually defeat a convoluted and patient unfriendly Medical Marijuana Regulation Bill (SB1262), sponsored by the Police Chiefs that still required regulations to be developed on the local level, named an unqualified state agency to oversee regulation, and most problematic, denied licenses to anyone with a prior drug conviction.
· The lifetime ban on Food Stamps and benefits for drug felons was repealed, taking effect April 2015. Although DPA was not directly involved this year, we have worked on this issue for over a decade, and as recently as last year cosponsored an unsuccessful bill to eliminate this unjust ban. Our previous author, Senator Loni Hancock, was able to use her powerful position on the budget committee to work this repeal into an omnibus public safety budget trailer bill that Governor Brown had no choice but to sign.
· DPA advocated for Prop 47, the Safe Schools and Neighborhoods Act, which won 58 percent of the vote on the November ballot. Prop 47 reduces six petty crimes, including simple drug possession, from a felony or wobbler to a misdemeanor. Prop 47 will prevent tens of thousands of people from going to prison every year, and allow as many as one million Californians to have their records reclassified, removing the felony record that creates barriers for formerly incarcerated people to getting jobs, student loans, business licenses, and public benefits.
These laws save lives, prevent Hep C and HIV infections, prevent unnecessary incarceration, fight hunger and poverty, allow for second chances, and codify that the same crime gets the same time.
These successes are helped by broader public awareness and support for ending the war on drugs and to the overwhelming data that demonstrate the disproportionate application of these laws to Black and Brown people.
Additionally, in California, the growing support from Latino leaders and elected officials has been critical to moving legislation through Sacramento and winning at the ballot box.
But still, California has the largest prison system in the world, and the state prison and many county jails remain under federal oversight. From addressing the mass criminalization and police militarization that Ferguson, MO and related incidents have raised, to robust implementation of Prop 47 and other reforms, to stopping the prison and jail building boom, to ensuring that immigrants don't get deported for drug possession, to reducing the millions of dollars that law enforcement routinely grabs through civil asset forfeiture seizures annually, there is much work to be done.
Lynne Lyman is the California state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.