Most but not all members of a drug-law-reform panel convened today by San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi supported reducing simple drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor.
The panel, which included San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, was part of a Justice Summit held annually by the Public Defender's Office.
Gascon led off in supporting a change in California law, as is currently being proposed in SB 1506, sponsored by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco.
"For me, this has been a long journey," said Gascon, who is also a former police chief.
But "I truly have felt, in my years of working in public policy, that the war on drugs has been a failure," he said.
Gascon said sending young people to prison for drug possession is equivalent to sending them to a "university of crime" and making them more likely to re-offend in the future.
A dissenting voice came from Martin Vranicar, the assistant chief executive officer of the California District Attorneys Association.
Vranicar said some drug users may need the threat of a possible felony conviction and sentence to motivate them to go into treatment programs.
Vranicar noted that most counties currently have diversion programs, but some offenders don't make use of them.
"We've got these programs that allow offenders to escape from criminal sanctions, but people just don't take advantage of them," he told the audience in the Koret Auditorium of the San Francisco Main Library.
At present, California law requires that possession of certain drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, is a felony punishable by 16 months to three years in jail. Possession of some other drugs, such as concentrated cannabis, sometimes known as hashish, can be either a felony or a misdemeanor punishable by no more than a year in jail.
Possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, however, is now only an infraction, punishable by a fine.
Leno's bill, now pending in the Senate, would change the drug possession crimes now classed as felonies to misdemeanors.
In a video message to the conference, Leno said felony convictions make it harder for reformed drug users to obtain the housing, education and jobs they need to turn their lives around.
"We really perpetuate a chronic underclass, which benefits none of us," under the current drug laws, Leno said.
The three other panelists -- San Francisco Probation Chief Wendy Still, Deputy Public Defender Tal Klement and Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelman - supported changing the law and also called for broader societal reforms.
"You have to look at the underlying problem, and not just lock people up," Still said.