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California Supreme Court: Inmates Can’t Possess Weed

The ruling overturns a lower court which found prisoners could have marijuana as long as they didn’t consume it

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Inmates in California prisons can’t legally possess Cannabis under legalization, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday. The ruling overturns a lower court finding prisoners could have weed as long as they didn’t consume it, reports AP.

The justices said the 2019 appeals court ruling allowing prisoners to have an ounce of weed went against common sense. The high court sided with the California attorney general, finding legalization, approved by voters, did not apply to prisoners.

“It seems implausible” that the voters intended to allow marijuana in prisons, Associate Justice Joshua Groban wrote for the majority. If voters had so intended, “we would expect them to have been more explicit,” Groban wrote.

California Led The Way In 1996

California voters led the way in 1996, becoming the first to legalize medical marijuana. Medical Cannabis is also is illegal in California prisons. Twenty years later, voters approved Proposition 64, establishing the world’s largest legal adult-use marijuana marketplace. People 21 or older can legally buy and possess up to an ounce of Cannabis.

Marijuana is now legal in some form in more than 30 states. However, Paul Armentano, deputy director of NORML, said he was unaware of any state that allows any Cannabis in prison.

The California Supreme Court case arose from the convictions of five men found with Cannabis in their prison cells. The Sacramento-based 3rd District Court of Appeal overturned the convictions. The court ruled that while state law made it illegal to smoke or eat pot in prison, it didn’t specifically criminalize possession.

Other California appellate courts had ruled that possessing cannabis in prison was still against the law.

5-2 Decision

Associate Justice Leondra Kruger agreed that the ballot measure did not legalize cannabis possession in California’s prisons and jails. But she said it left open the question of whether prosecutors could continue to file charges the same way. Prosecutors choose between what Kruger called two overlapping felony statutes, one with tougher penalties than the other.

Voters could have intended to provide a “limited measure of leniency” for inmates caught with cannabis, she reasoned. That’s true, she argued, even while not decriminalizing possession behind bars. Kruger also said the court shouldn’t have addressed the legality question at all. She based that opinion on the way the appeal was framed.

She was joined by one other justice, Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar.

‘Unduly Harsh’?

The lower court said prison officials still could ban possession as a rules violation. They do that for alcohol and tobacco. But that court ruled officials could not seek new felony charges that could add years to prisoners’ sentences.

“We are sympathetic to the view that (existing law) creates extreme disparity between how our legal system treats the possession of cannabis generally versus the possession of such a substance inside a correctional facility,” Groban wrote. “That is also true of many other substances, including alcohol.”

“Some may well view an eight-year prison sentence for the possession of less than one gram of cannabis as unduly harsh,” he wrote. “The wisdom of those policy judgments, however, are not relevant to our interpretation of the statutory language.”

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