A voter-approved initiative legalizing weed did not extend to allow possession of cannabis while in prison, the California State Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Voters in 2016 passed Proposition 64, which legalized adult possession of 28.5 grams or less of cannabis and cleared the path for regulated sales. Five former state prison inmates individually filed to dismiss their convictions under a Prop. 64 provision, arguing the conduct for which they were sentenced was no longer criminal under the state penal code. That included one individual who got an extra eight years for possessing 0.59 grams.
The California Court of Appeal, Third District, agreed with the inmates, finding that the plain language of the law enacted as part of Proposition 64 meant that possession of less than an ounce of cannabis in prison is no longer a felony. The California Penal Code criminalizes ingestion, but doesn’t address possession, the court said. Because the Prop. 64 provision expressly states that laws pertaining to smoking and ingesting cannabis in prison are not affected by the decriminalization of possession, voters chose to distinguish mere possession from consumption, Justice Vance Raye wrote.
In reversing that ruling, the California Supreme Court resolved a split among the state’s appellate courts, siding with a separate panel, the California Court of Appeal, First District, which concluded that the initiative did not decriminalize possession in prison.
The state’s construction of the law “is more compatible with common sense,” Justice Joshua P. Groban wrote for the court. It’s doubtful that voters intended to legalize possession in prison but allow laws that criminalize its use there, Groban said.
The majority noted its sympathy to the view that the provision “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.” That is also true of many other substances, including alcohol, Groban wrote. “The wisdom of those policy judgments, however, are not relevant to our interpretation of the statutory language.”
Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye and Justices Carol A. Corrigan, Goodwin H. Liu, and Martin J. Jenkins joined the opinion.
Justice Leondra R. Kruger partially dissented. Kruger said she agreed with the majority that Prop. 64 did not legalize cannabis possession in California prisons, but questioned part of the opinion that said prosecutors could continue to use one of two statutes to charge possession. Kruger said the question of which statute prosecutors could use was not an issue that should be decided in this case. Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar joined the partial dissent.
Ryan B. McCarroll, deputy California solicitor general, argued for the state. David Lynch, assistant Sacramento County public defender, argued for lead defendant Goldy Raybon.
The case is People v. Raybon (Goldy), Cal., No. S256978, opinion 8/12/21