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A new report finds arrests and citations for drug possession have decreased in Los Angeles and San Diego counties after Prop 47.

In November 2014, California took a significant step toward reforming mass criminalization and over-incarceration by passing Proposition 47, a ballot measure that changed certain low-level crimes from potential felonies to misdemeanors; prioritizing drug treatment over punishment. In 2015, the first full year after Prop 47, felony drug arrests fell by over 92,000 while misdemeanor drug arrests increased by only 70,000. Taken together, these shifts produced a 10 percent decline in total drug arrests. In that year alone, 22,000 fewer drug possession cases were filed in California’s criminal justice system. 

For decades, the criminal justice system has incentivized arrests, convictions, incarceration, and other criminal consequences for drug use. However, the American public increasingly believes problematic substance use is a public health problem, not a criminal one. In California, drug policy reforms implemented over recent years reflect these changing perceptions.

In response to the passage of Prop 47, some police departments began redirecting drug enforcement resources to community policing or the enforcement of other, more serious, offenses. Critics of the policy, however, claim that it limits police authority and constrains the effectiveness of drug control, a contention that has led some law enforcement agencies to deemphasize the enforcement of Prop 47-related offenses.

Drug offense arrests in California, 2005 – 2015

This report, authored by CJCJ in partnership with the Drug Policy Alliance, seeks to understand how enforcement and prosecution of drug possession offenses have changed after Prop 47 by analyzing arrests and citations made by Los Angeles and San Diego law enforcement, and charges filed by county prosecutors.

Prop 47 and Prop 64 are significant steps towards decriminalizing drug use and investing in repairing some of the damages caused by the punitive laws stemming from the war on drugs”, said Eunisses Hernandez, Policy Coordinator with Drug Policy Alliance. This report finds that Prop 47 led to a decline in the use of state and local criminal justice systems for simple drug possession cases; freeing up dollars that would have been spent on incarceration. Only by ending the criminalization of substance use and investing into evidence-based treatment can communities begin to effectively address problematic substance use and improve local health and safety,” said Hernandez.

While Prop 47 has repealed some vestiges of the war on drugs, sustained and intentional law enforcement and prosecutor cooperation is crucial to achieving lasting reform. Science and medicine agree that substance use is best addressed with a public health, rather than criminal justice, approach. Though Prop 47, and more recently Prop 64, represent major steps forward, only by ending the criminalization of substance use can communities align local policies with best practices, effectively address problematic substance use, and improve health and safety in our communities.

Read the report Declining Drug After Proposition 47 » See the executive summary »

Contact: For more information about this report or to schedule an interview with the author, please contact the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice at cjcjmedia@​cjcj.​org or (415) 6215661121