The California Supreme Court ruled this week that inmates in the state prison system do not have a right to possess marijuana under Proposition 64, the landmark 2016 ballot initiative that legalized cannabis in the state. The ruling overturns a lower court decision in 2019 that found that prisoners could possess marijuana but could not smoke or otherwise ingest it while behind bars.
“It seems implausible” that the voters intended to essentially decriminalize marijuana in prisons with the ballot measure’s passage, Associate Justice Joshua Groban wrote in the court’s majority opinion.
2019 Decision Overturned For California Inmates
The Supreme Court’s decision was handed down in a case of five men who were convicted of marijuana possession after being found with cannabis in their prison cells. In 2019, California’s 3rd District Court of Appeal ruled that although smoking and ingesting marijuana in prison is illegal under state law, possession of cannabis was not specifically outlawed by statute. Under that ruling, the appeals court found that state prisoners could legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana. Other appeals court decisions, however, had found that marijuana possession in prisons is still against the law.
In a 5-to-2 decision released last Thursday, the Supreme Court overturned the 3rd District Court of Appeal’s ruling, agreeing with a state attorney general’s office finding that Prop. 64 did not apply to incarcerated individuals.
“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,” wrote Groban.
“While perhaps not illogical to distinguish between the possession and use of cannabis, it is nonetheless difficult to understand why the electorate would want to preclude laws criminalizing cannabis possession in prison, but permit laws criminalizing cannabis consumption in prison,” he continued.
Two Justices Issue Partial Dissent
In a partially dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Leondra Kruger agreed that Prop. 64 did not legalize marijuana possession in prison. However, she argued that voters could have intended to provide a “limited measure of leniency” that precluded the filing of new criminal charges for those found possessing cannabis behind bars. Kruger was joined in the partially dissenting opinion by Associate Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar.
But in the majority opinion, Groban wrote that there “is nothing in the ballot materials for Proposition 64 to suggest the voters were alerted to or aware of any potential impact of the measure on cannabis in correctional institutions, much less that the voters intended to alter existing proscriptions against the possession or use of cannabis in those institutions.”
Groban acknowledged that the provisions of Prop. 64 are not being applied equally to all Californians, but noted that prisons also prohibit possession of other items including alcohol and tobacco.
“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.”
The court’s majority also noted that the repercussions for possession of marijuana behind bars can be severe. But Groban said that the mandated penalties for violating the law are not under the purview of the court.
“Some may well view an eight-year prison sentence for the possession of less than one gram of cannabis (one gram is the approximate weight of a single paper clip or a quarter teaspoon of sugar) as unduly harsh,” he wrote. “The wisdom of those policy judgments, however, are not relevant to our interpretation of the statutory language.”
A.J. Herrington is a San Diego-based freelance writer covering cannabis news, business, and culture.