05/30/2012 02:48 pm ET Updated Jul 30, 2012

While DC Retreats, California And Other States Continue March Towards Drug Policy Reform

Proving once again progress comes from the states upward to Washington, DC not the reverse, California and Colorado may breakthrough in 2012 with pragmatic reforms that chip away at the failed "war on drugs" with measures that "de-felonize" simple possession of controlled substances and legalize cannabis consumption.

In California advocates from a diverse effort including State Senators Mark Leno, NAACP, Drug Policy Alliance, ACLU and William C. Velasquez Institute (WCVI) are poised to gain approval of SB1506 in the California Senate. Approved in the Public Safety Committee thanks to the vote of Senator Ron Calderon (Vice Chair of the Latino Legislative Caucus) SB1506 is picking up steam in the Senate because of its common sense approach.

SB1506 would save $1 billion over five years for California's nearly bankrupt state government, while infinitely improving the chances for a successful life path for thousands of mostly young people of color by eliminating the "felon" scarlet letter from their prospective records. FYI, having a felony conviction excludes one from federal housing access as well as numerous education and job opportunities in practice.

The centrist measure still punishes transgressors with misdemeanor penalties of fines and county jail time of up to a year. Importantly, SB1506 simultaneously incentivizes the convicted to seek substance abuse treatment (enter a program or go to county jail!).

It's no secret that Latinos and African Americans in California are deeply affected by America's "drug war" policies, specifically those attributed to simple possession of a controlled substance. Based on data collected from the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, between 2008 and 2011 more than 10,000 California Latinos were convicted of a simple drug possession felony.

Recent surveys show that California voters support SB1506-type measures by 70%, no doubt realizing that putting young people in state prison costs the taxpayers twenty times more than educating them ($180,000 to $8,000 per head per year!)

Given the context of SB 1506, i.e. billions of dollars in California budget cuts in education and social services, a new federal crack-down on state medical marijuana laws, and intensification of drug war intervention in Latin American (despite protestations from US allies Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala), approving SB1506 in 2012 will be especially meaningful.

Similarly in Colorado a ballot proposition legalizing personal use of cannabis is scoring well in surveys with a realistic chance to be enacted by voters in November 2012 -the implications of which will be discussed in a future article.