By Bob Egelko

Californians will vote in November on a measure backed by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón -- and opposed by most of his fellow prosecutors -- to make possession of drugs a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

Secretary of State Debra Bowen's office said Thursday that the initiative, co-sponsored by Gascón and former San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne, had more than the 504,760 valid signatures it needed to qualify for the ballot.

Reducing penalties

It would make possession of heroin, cocaine and several other drugs a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than a year in county jail, instead of a felony carrying up to three years in prison. It would also reduce small-time theft offenses such as shoplifting and check forgery to misdemeanors if the amount stolen was $950 or less, about twice the current limit.

The reduction wouldn't apply to defendants who had previous convictions for murder or sex crimes. Inmates now serving felony sentences for crimes that would be reduced to misdemeanors -- as many as 18,000, according to the sponsors -- would be eligible for resentencing to lesser terms unless a judge decided they were likely to commit violent crimes after their release.

The Legislature's fiscal analyst says the changes could save the state hundreds of millions of dollars a year in prison costs. The initiative would reserve 65 percent of that money for mental health and drug treatment programs, with the rest going to crime-prevention programs in schools and trauma recovery for rape victims.

Most people charged with first-offense drug possession in California are being sentenced to treatment rather than prison because of Proposition 36, which passed in 2000 after a campaign that Gascón co-chaired.

Thirteen states already classify drug possession as a misdemeanor. Gascón says San Francisco already sends most of its drug defendants to neighborhood courts and treatment programs, and has saved money and jail space without increasing crime.

D.A. group's stance

The California District Attorneys Association has fought legislative attempts to reduce drug-possession penalties. In 2012, the association helped to defeat a bill by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, to make possession a misdemeanor.

A more modest bill by Leno, allowing prosecutors to decide whether to charge the crime as a felony or a misdemeanor, won legislative passage last year. But Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, heeding prosecutors' arguments that even the possibility of a misdemeanor charge with no jail time would eliminate a defendant's incentive to plead guilty and enter treatment.

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