Drug Possession Laws and Charges in California

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Thanks to Proposition 47, possession of a controlled substance in California is usually a misdemeanor that carries the possibility of a 1 year jail sentence. It can, however, be charged as a felony when the accused has a prior conviction for certain crimes or is required to register as a sex offender. Possession is also a felony if the accused possessed a loaded firearm together with the drug.

Proposition 47 reclassified some drug crimes but it did not change the mentality of prosecutors and police officers who believe that the criminal justice system is the best way to address illicit drug use. More than 92,000 people were arrested for misdemeanor drug offenses in California during 2014. Most of those arrests were for possession offenses.

Facing charges for drug possession? Contact us for a free case evaluation.

The consequences of a misdemeanor possession conviction can be severe. Drug convictions can lead to the loss or denial of employment and can have an impact on professional licenses (such as teacher’s licenses). Drug convictions can also affect immigration status.

If you have been arrested for or charged with a possession offense in Orange County, Riverside County, or elsewhere in Southern California, an aggressive defense can help you avoid the disastrous consequences of a drug conviction. Representing clients in San Diego, Los Angeles, and other California communities, The Law Office of Randy Collins is available to evaluate your case and help you plan a defense strategy that will meet your needs.

The Two Drug Possession Laws in California

Laws governing drug possession offenses in CACalifornia Health & Safety Code 11350 HS makes it a crime to possess certain controlled substances without a valid prescription. That section does not apply to marijuana, which is governed by a different law, but it does apply to possession of heroin, oxycodone, cocaine, synthetic THC, and certain other drugs, including all narcotics. A similar law, California Health & Safety Code 11377 HS, criminalizesthe possession of methamphetamine, MDMA (Ecstasy), and some anabolic steroids, among other drugs.

“Possession for sale” is a more serious crime. The misdemeanor of simple possession applies to possession for personal use. In some cases, the police or prosecution will decide that the quantity possessed was too large for personal use and will treat the offense as possession for sale. In those cases, evidence that the accused has a serious drug habit might persuade a prosecutor or jury that the drugs were purchased in bulk to save money or to avoid the risk of making repeated buys.

What Cops Must Prove To Convict You Of Drug Possession

Officers proving drug possession chargeTo obtain a conviction on a simple possession charge, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused

  • possessed the drug,
  • knew that the drug was in his or her possession,
  • knew that the drug was a controlled substance, and
  • possessed a usable quantity of the drug.

California law permits a conviction for both actual and constructive possession. Actual possession means the accused had immediate control of the drug. When drugs are found in the accused’s pocket, the accused has actual possession of the drug.

Constructive possession means the accused had the right to control the drug even if the drug is not in the immediate vicinity of the accused. If the drug is in a friend’s car but the accused can gain access to it by contacting the friend, the accused has constructive possession of the drug.

Possession does not need to be exclusive. Two people can share possession of the same drugs if they both have the right to control the drugs. On the other hand, merely being in the presence of drugs does not prove possession of the drugs. Standing near people who are using drugs is not a crime if the accused had no right to use or control the use of the drugs.

Syringe and spoon for heroinThe requirement of knowledge means that the accused is not guilty of a crime if the drugs were planted on the accused or if someone left the drugs in the accused’s residence or car and the accused did not realize they were present. Knowledge that the drugs were a controlled substance means that the accused knew the drugs were a regulated drug. It is not necessary to prove that the accused knew the exact nature of the drug.

A belief that a drug is cocaine when the drug turns out to be heroin is not a defense to a possession charge. On the other hand, a belief that the substance is baking soda when it turns out to be cocaine is a defense.

A usable quantity is a quantity that can actually be used. Possessing trace amounts in the corner of a baggie is not a crime.

Effective Defense of Southern California Possession Charges

As a former prosecutor, Randy Collins understands how to present his clients to judges and prosecutors in their most favorable light. In many cases, possession charges can be addressed through negotiated resolutions, including diversion programs, to avoid criminal convictions.

In other cases, challenges to the methods the police used to acquire evidence can result in dismissal of the charges. When a trial gives a client the best chance to avoid a conviction, Randy Collins uses his skill as a trial attorney to fight for “not guilty” verdicts on possession charges.


Every case is different. Each defense must be tailored to the facts of the case and to the needs of the client. To obtain an evaluation of your case from an experienced, top-rated Southern California drug defense attorney, submit our online contact form or call The Law Office of Randy Collins at 888-250-2865.