AZ Supreme Court Rules First Time Drug Offenders Cannot Be Sent To Jail

The Arizona State Supreme Court ruled this week that under the terms of voter initiatives passed in 1996 and 1998, persons convicted of possession or use of marijuana (or other illegal drugs) may not be sent to jail or prison for a first offense.
In 1996, a majority of the voters approved Proposition 200, the Drug Medicalization, Prevention and Control Act, which requires courts to suspend sentencing and impose probation for first-time offenders. The intent of the initiative was clearly stated to preclude the possibility of incarceration for a first-time offender. The act directs offenders to participate in an appropriate drug treatment or education program as a condition of probation.
In 1997, the state legislature adopted a law redefining probation to include the possibility of incarceration up to one year in jail, but that language was then repealed by a citizen referendum in 1998.
The state Court of Appeals subsequently ruled that there was a distinction between prison and jail, and while upholding the ban on a prison sentence for first offenders, ruled that the courts could impose a jail sentence not exceeding one year as a condition of probation.
The Supreme Court reviewed the language of Proposition 200 and overruled the court of appeals, finding that “The dictionary definition and common understanding coincide on the meaning of ‘probation,’ defining it as a ‘court-imposed criminal sentence that…releases a convicted person into the community instead of sending the criminal to jail or prison’…[T]he electorate never intended the trial judges to have the discretion to impose jail time as a condition of probation…Neither the text nor the intent of the electorate…supports imposing incarceration as a condition of the required probation for first-time offenders.”
“One would hope that the state legislature, and the lower courts in Arizona, will now finally implement this important new law in the manner it was intended when it was approved by voters in 1996 and again in 1998,” said Keith Stroup, NORML Executive Director. “It’s time for the drug warriors to accept the will of the majority of Arizona voters.”
For more information, please contact Keith Stroup, NORML Executive Director at (202) 483-5500.