California's drug laws are a mess. There is no other way to describe it. In many cases the laws are unfair, inconsistent, inflexible and unevenly applied.

It is little wonder then that the courts are overloaded with drug cases and the state's prisons are bursting at the seams with drug offenders who probably don't belong there.

Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, is advancing a sensible and modest proposal that would improve that landscape by giving more flexibility to local prosecutors in how they can handle drug cases that involve simple possession of cocaine or heroin.

Currently, simple possession of heroin or cocaine must be charged as a felony, pure and simple.

Leno's bill -- SB649 -- would give discretion to prosecutors in each of California's 58 counties as to whether to charge simple possession of either drug as a felony or a misdemeanor. In other words, decisions would be made by local prosecutors on a case-by-case basis that considered the severity of the incident and the offender's criminal record.

As one might expect when proposing change to drug laws, there are those who will oppose it. Some of them aren't above mischaracterizing what the legislation intends and what it would actually do.

One of the charges most often leveled is that SB649 would make possession of heroin or cocaine a misdemeanor. It does not. It simply gives prosecutors the flexibility and authority to charge simple possession of heroin or cocaine as a felony or as a misdemeanor.


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Ironically, it is the way simple possession of methamphetamine has been treated in California for 40 years. Methamphetamine is every bit as dangerous and addictive as either cocaine or heroin, if not more so. There just is no reason that the drugs should be treated differently.

Prosecutors also already have this discretion on more serious crimes, such as aggravated assault, domestic violence, grand theft or car theft.

One of the primary advocates in the East Bay for the change is retired Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Harlan G. Grossman. Known as a particularly hardworking, detail-oriented and fair jurist, Grossman has the portfolio to speak on such issues. He was an FBI special agent for six years, a prosecutor for nine years and a judge for 21 years, a portion of which was spent running the county's drug court. He is no criminal coddler.

As Grossman told a legislative committee earlier his year, passing this legislation is entirely consistent with the state's realignment of its prison system.

"Realignment is all about local control and a collaborative approach to resolving criminal justice issues," Grossman said.

Misdemeanor cases require much less court time and resources and, by giving prosecutors this option, it helps to save the state's fiscally challenged court system.

This is a matter of both fairness and expediency and the Legislature should pass it.