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California court rules Inmates can legally possess marijuana — but not smoke it

A California court has ruled that prison inmates are legally allowed to possess marijuana, but that they are not permitted to use it.

Last week, the Third District Court of Appeal in Sacramento overturned the convictions of five inmates who were found with pot, pointing to the language of Proposition 64, the 2016 ballot initiative that made possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana no longer a felony in the state.

“The purpose of the language is to describe the vast array of means of consumption, and consumption, not possession, is the act the voters determined should remain criminalized if the user is in prison,” said the ruling, which was handed down Tuesday. “We agree with defendants that consumption can be achieved in ways not strictly involving smoking or ingesting, such as inhaled as a nonburning vapor or applied topically such that it is absorbed through the skin.”

However, the court pointed out that smoking or ingesting marijuana remained a felony.

The ruling added that prison authorities reserved the right to ban possession to “maintain order and safety in the prisons.”

The state’s penal code makes it a crime for a person to bring “contraband” into prison, including alcohol and controlled substances.

“While the court’s decision is still under review, we want to be clear that drug use and sales within state prisons remains prohibited,” said Vicky Waters, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. “CDCR is committed to providing a safe, accountable environment for prisoners and staff alike, and we plan to evaluate this decision with an eye toward maintaining health and security within our institutions.”

A marijuana advocacy group in California said it did not think the ruling would have any real-world effects.

“I think it’s sort of a novelty decision,” said Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, which champions fair marijuana laws and regulations in California. “As is well acknowledged, plenty of behaviors and activities may be legal under state law that are not necessarily permissible to those that are incarcerated.”

He said he did not believe that inmates should be allowed to use marijuana.

“It would be inconsistent with existing laws and regulations” and cultural mores, he said, “to allow inmates to use any sort of recreational intoxicants.”

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