"Smoke a Joint, Lose Your License" Law Goes Into Effect in California
As of Dec. 1, those convicted in California of any drug offense will lose their driver's license for six months under the penalty provision mockingly called "smoke a joint, lose your license" (Carl Ingram, "'Smoke a Joint, Lose License' Law in Effect," Los Angeles Times, Dec. 1, 1994, p. 3).
The penalty applies to all drug offenses, including marijuana possession cases. Before the new law, which was passed Aug. 31, marijuana possession of less than an ounce was subject to a citation with a maximum punishment of a $100 fine. Now those convicted of a drug charge will lose their license regardless of whether their offense involved operation of a motor vehicle.
Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) officials expect 131,000 license suspensions in the next year. The California DMV supports the new law, citing their 1993 study that found drug offense arrestees are involved in more traffic accidents. Critics charge that the study did not control for age or sex.
"Smoke a Joint, Lose Your License" came about as a result of a federal law that requires states to make a decision about suspending the driver's license of drug offenders. Those states that refuse to evaluate the provision are in danger of losing federal funds for highway construction and maintenance. California stood to lose $54 million.
Critics of the law, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Teamsters Union, say that minor drug convictions could cost some offenders their jobs because of the loss of license. License suspension, they say, should occur only if the drug offense were related to driving a motor vehicle.
In addition, these groups say the new law may complicate prosecution of all crimes. It is expected that more people will contest minor drug charges in court because the loss of a license is more of a concern than a fine of $100. The end result may mean more backlog in an already backlogged system.
DMV officials say they did not look at the impact on the courts in making their recommendations to the legislature. "Mainly we looked at the impact of losing between $47 million and $55 million," said DMV spokesman Evan Nossoff. "We don't see that this law will be a major factor in courtroom calendars, but we do believe it will provide a small but significant improvement in traffic safety."
The law will expire on Dec. 1, 1995 unless it is voted on again by the legislature.