The California Supreme Court struck down a bill to allow state prisoners to grow their own marijuana as unconstitutional on Friday. The Proposition 64, passed by California voters in November, would have allowed state prisoners to grow up to six pot plants and to smoke it in the privacy of their cells. Prisoners would not be able to buy marijuana at a dispensary.

The California Supreme Court has ruled that prisoners can’t be required to participate in a medical marijuana program, rejecting an appeal from a federal prison inmate who is serving time for selling drugs. The court’s decision on Wednesday backed the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ position that the federal government retains the authority to decide who gets pot for medical purposes – even though federal law previously allowed inmates at federal penitentiaries to possess and use marijuana for medicinal purposes.

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The California Supreme Court decided this week that under Proposition 64, the historic 2016 ballot measure that legalized cannabis in the state, prisoners in the state prison system do not have the right to possess marijuana. The judgment overturns a lower court decision from 2019 that said inmates may carry marijuana but not smoke or consume it while incarcerated.

In the court’s majority decision, Associate Justice Joshua Groban stated, “It appears unlikely” that the voters meant to effectively legalize marijuana in prisons with the ballot measure’s approval.

For California inmates, a decision made in 2019 has been overturned.

The Supreme Court’s ruling came in a case involving five men who were discovered with marijuana in their jail cells and were convicted of marijuana possession. Although smoking and ingesting marijuana in prison is illegal under California law, the 3rd District Court of Appeal ruled in 2019 that possession of cannabis was not specifically prohibited by statute. The appeals court found that state prisoners could legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana under that ruling. Other appeals court rulings, on the other hand, have ruled that marijuana possession in jail remains illegal.

The Supreme Court reversed the 3rd District Court of Appeal’s judgment last Thursday, agreeing with a state attorney general’s office that Prop. 64 did not extend to imprisoned people, in a 5-to-2 decision.

“We agree with the Attorney General that the drafters should have been more clear about their intentions if they meant to alter the rules surrounding cannabis in jail so dramatically,” Groban wrote.

“While distinguishing between possession and use of cannabis is maybe not irrational, it is difficult to comprehend why the voters would wish to prohibit laws criminalizing cannabis possession in jail but allow laws criminalizing cannabis use in prison,” he added.

Partially Dissented by Two Justices

Associate Justice Leondra Kruger, in a partially dissenting opinion, agreed that Prop. 64 did not legalize marijuana possession in prison. She noted, however, that voters may have meant to offer a “limited degree of mercy” by prohibiting the bringing of new criminal charges against individuals caught in possession of cannabis while incarcerated. Associate Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar joined Kruger in the partly dissenting opinion.

“There is nothing in the ballot materials for Proposition 64 to suggest that 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 change existing proscriptions against the possession or use of cannabis in those institutions,” Groban wrote in the majority opinion.

Groban agreed that the requirements of Proposition 64 are not evenly applied to all Californians, but said that jails also restrict the possession of other goods like as alcohol and cigarettes.

Groban said, “We are sympathetic to the notion that (current legislation) creates an enormous discrepancy between how our legal system handles cannabis possession in general vs cannabis possession within a correctional facility.” “Many other drugs, including alcohol, fall into this category.” 

The majority of the court also said that marijuana use while incarcerated may have serious consequences. The court, however, does not have jurisdiction over the mandatory penalties for breaking the statute, according to Groban.

“Some may consider an eight-year jail term for possessing less than one gram of cannabis (the weight of a single paper clip or a quarter teaspoon of sugar) to be too harsh,” he wrote. “However, the soundness of such policy decisions has no bearing on our reading of the statutory language.”

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