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California Drug Possession Laws

Overview of California Drug Possession Laws

California state laws include two broad categories for crimes of drug possession: simple possession and possession with the intent to sell. The California Health and Safety Code also separates offenses related to controlled substances formerly classified under state law as narcotics or "restricted dangerous drugs" from offenses related to marijuana. California laws also establish separate offenses related to phencyclidine (PCP) and methamphetamine.

Possession for Sale

A prosecutor can charge a defendant with simple possession when the defendant possessed one of the substances listed under the Health and Safety Code. A prosecutor may charge a defendant with "possession for sale" or "purchase for the purpose of sale" if the state believes that the defendant intended to engage in drug dealing.

Penalties and Sentences After Prop 47

California sets penalties for drug possession that vary depending on the type of drug, the amount of the drug, and the purpose for which the defendant had possession of the drug. The sentencing structure for drug possession changed after California voters passed the controversial Proposition 47 in 2014. This new law made many drug possession offenses punishable as a misdemeanor only and allowed those serving time in a state prison for drug possession charges to petition the court for resentencing. Certain inmates cannot petition the court for resentencing such as anyone convicted for rape or murder, or any registered sex offenders.

Recreational Marijuana Decriminalized

In 2016, voters decriminalized recreational marijuana under Proposition 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. Under the new law, adults 21 and over may purchase, possess, and consume up to 28.5 grams of marijuana and 8 grams of concentrated marijuana in their private residence or in an establishment licensed for marijuana consumption. Smoking remains illegal while driving a vehicle, anywhere smoking tobacco is prhibited, and in all public places.

Additionally, possession on the grounds of a school, day care center, or youth center while children are present remains illegal. Furthermore, a person is permitted to grow up to six plants within a private home, as long as the area is locked and not visible from a public place.

Medical marijuana laws and regulations remain intact, while patients with a doctor's recommendation are exempt from sales tax.

California Drug Possession Laws Overview

Below you will find key provisions of California’s drug possession laws.


California Health and Safety Code Division 10, Chapter 6, Sections 11350-11651 et. seq. (Uniform Controlled Substances Act)


Possession of Controlled Substances, Not Marijuana

After Prop 47, following crimes are punished as misdemeanors only, with penalties including up to one year in the county jail, not state prison:

  • Schedule I opiates, opium derivatives, cocaine base, mescaline, peyote, or synthetic cannabis (including their isomers, esters, ethers, salts, and salts of isomers, esters, and ethers)
  • Schedule II narcotics or opiates
  • Schedule III hallucinogens, and
  • Schedule III, IV or V

Possession of Marijuana

  • Possession of more than 28.5 grams of marijuana, other than concentrated cannabis, is punishable by incarceration of up to 6 months, a fine of not more than $500, or both
  • Possession of not more than 28.5 grams of marijuana, legal for those 21 and over, an infraction for those 18 and under (mandatory drug education course and community service)

Possession of Concentrated Cannabis

  • Possession of up to 8 grams of concentrated cannabis is legal, over 8 grams is punishable by incarceration of up to 1 year, a fine of up to $500, or both

Possible Defenses

  • Medical necessity
  • Prescription issued by a doctor
  • Unlawful search resulting in seizure of drugs
  • Problem with lab analysis
  • Entrapment or improper police conduct

Classification of Controlled Dangerous Drugs/Uniform Controlled Substances Act

See the Uniform Controlled Substances Act: As of November, 2014 certain controlled substances are punished as misdemeanors only as noted above.

Note: State laws are always subject to change through the passage of new legislation, rulings in the higher courts (including federal decisions), ballot initiatives, and other means. While we strive to provide the most current information available, please consult an attorney or conduct your own legal research to verify the state law(s) you are researching.

California Codes and Legal Research Options

Additional Resources

If you have additional questions about California’s drug possession laws, whether concerning cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, or marijuana, click on the following links:

Questions About California Drug Possession Laws? Ask a Lawyer

If you're caught in possession of a controlled substance, you’ll be facing a number of serious penalties. However, it's sometimes tricky for the prosecutor to prove that you actually or constructively possessed the drugs for personal use. If you'd like to explore your defense options or simply have a legal question, you should contact a drug crime lawyer in California today.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Complex drug crimes usually require a lawyer
  • Experienced drug crime lawyers can seek to reduce or eliminate criminal penalties
  • Drug crime laws involve many specifics that can quickly change a case

Get tailored legal advice and ask a lawyer questions. Many California attorneys offer free consultations for Drug Crime.


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