According to the 2016 adult-use initiative, a legal loophole sprung up that allowed adults 21 and older to possess cannabis while incarcerated in California state prisons. However, earlier this week, the California Supreme Court amended the rule stating that incarcerated individuals can’t actually possess cannabis and the initiative doesn’t apply to them. Overturning a lower appellate court’s decision, the justices said that the ruling that people behind bars could possess up to an ounce of cannabis went beyond “common sense.”
Associate Justice Joshua Groban said in the decision, “It seems implausible that the voters intended to essentially decriminalize marijuana in prisons. We agree with the Attorney General that if the drafters had intended to so dramatically change the laws regarding cannabis in prison, we would expect them to have been more explicit about their goals.”
The case came to light after five men were convicted of possessing cannabis in their prison cells, though it was later overturned by the California Appeals Court since in their eyes, although it was illegal to smoke, eat, or use cannabis in prison, they had the right to possess it. Many other state appellate courts disagreed, though the Supreme Court justices ruled against the prisoners in a 5-2 decision.
The lower court said prison authorities could outlaw cannabis like any other substance, such as alcohol, for example. But that an inmate shouldn’t be given an extended sentence for possessing cannabis behind bars. Associate Justice Joshua Groban disagreed, writing “We are sympathetic to the view that (existing law) creates an 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.”
Alternatively, Associate Justice Leondra Kruger, said she believed that prosecutors would have to address the conundrum internally. Catching an inmate with cannabis would give prosecutors a choice between two overlapping felony statutes with different penalties. In the dissent, she wrote that voters may have intended a “limited measure of leniency” for people in jail even though the electorate didn’t explicitly decriminalize cannabis in prison. She also wrote that the court should have ignored the legality question based on how they chose to present the appeal. Only one other judge, Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, dissented from the majority.
In an attempt to explain his decision, Groban said “Some may well view an eight-year prison sentence for the possession of less than one gram of cannabis as unduly harsh. The wisdom of those policy judgments, however, are not relevant to our interpretation of the statutory language.”