PHOENIX – Saying harsh penalties for marijuana use do more harm than good, a state lawmaker wants to remove felony charges for possession without the intent to sell.
“I don’t believe they should go away to prison and face hefty fines and possibly have their civil rights taken away,” said Rep. Mark A. Cardenas, D-Phoenix. “We shouldn’t have people that are being sentenced to long prison terms for simple possession of marijuana.”
Cardenas authored HB 2474, which would subject those carrying less than 1 ounce of marijuana without intent to sell to a civil penalty of no more than $100. Possession of less than 2 pounds without intent to sell would be a petty offense, while possession of greater amounts would be a misdemeanor.
Currently, possession of up to two pounds is a class six felony, punishable by up to two years in prison and a $750 fine.
The bill would reduce the charge for growing marijuana from a felony to a misdemeanor if the amount is less than 2 pounds.
Cardenas said he was against legalization when he served in the Army and National Guard but that his views changed after taking an Arizona State University class on drugs and justice.
“It took being willing to learn from facts and figures to say, I was wrong,” he said. “Let’s change that. Let’s try to change my corner of the world.”
His bill was assigned to the House Judiciary Committee but hadn’t been scheduled for a hearing.
Cardenas also signed onto a bill that would legalize the recreational use of marijuana. HB 2558, authored by Rep. Ruben Gallego,D-Phoenix, had yet to be assigned to a committee.
While Cardenas is for marijuana legalization, he said “the next best option would be to decriminalize small amounts.”
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said reducing marijuana possession penalties would undermine efforts by counties to rehabilitate first- and second-time offenders who aren’t facing other charges. Those successfully completing the diversion program avoid criminal records.
“The irony is that if you try to reduce those penalties, you are going to wind up with people who are going to have maybe an ostensibly lower level offense, but they’re going to have more of a conviction record than people who could initially be charged with a felony and be offered diversion and have no record,” he said.
Montgomery said that in 2013, 63 percent of the diversion cases in Maricopa County were for marijuana possession, and 85 percent of those in the program successfully completed it.
Nine other counties have similar diversion prosecution programs, according to the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council.
Montgomery said the idea that Arizona’s prisons are full of marijuana-possession offenders. According to the 2011 Arizona Sentencing Report from the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys’ Advisory Council, about 95 percent of inmates in Arizona’s prison system have committed multiple or violent felonies.
“If that’s the motivation of this bill, it’s a solution in search of a problem,” he said.
Carolyn Short, chairwoman for Keep AZ Drug Free, a committee that opposed the 2010 medical marijuana ballot initiative, said the idea of reduce sentences for marijuana possession isn’t rational and ignores scientific fact.
“It’s just another way of communicating to kids that its not that big of a deal and it really is a big deal,” she said. “We already have two substances now that are legal, alcohol and tobacco, that are creating damage economically and socially to our society.”
Dennis Bohlke, spokesperson for Safer Arizona, a marijuana advocacy group that approached Cardenas about HB 2474, said he believes that current drug laws are harming youth.
“I can’t think of any reason why we should charge young people for using marijuana,” he said.
The group is trying to collect enough signatures to put a marijuana legalization initiative on the ballot in November.
Cardenas thinks it’s time to rethink how marijuana possession is viewed in Arizona.
“The amount of money that we’re spending hasn’t dropped the number of people that are caught with possession, it hasn’t done anything to reduce cartel violence, and I would say it’s a victimless crime,” he said.