SACRAMENTO " The California Assembly approved legislation Monday that would allow people convicted of drug possession to receive food stamps, reversing a controversial part of the state's 1997 welfare overhaul.
Currently, anyone convicted of possessing, manufacturing or selling drugs is barred for life from receiving food stamps.
Although the food stamp program is funded by the federal government, California, like every other state, has the right to decide whether drug felons should get benefits.
The new legislation would reverse seven years of practice in California, following comprehensive welfare reforms passed by Congress and former President Bill Clinton in 1996 and modified a year later by the state.
"Denying public assistance means families headed by former offenders will have less money for food and less of a chance to rebuild their lives," said Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), who wrote the measure.
Democrats say passage of Proposition 36 " the 2000 ballot initiative that allows first-time drug users to get treatment instead of jail " indicated that California voters wanted less punitive treatment of drug users.
The legislation approved Monday would continue to prohibit convicted drug sellers, manufacturers and importers from receiving food stamps.
But a larger category of people convicted of drug possession would be able to receive the benefits.
State welfare officials estimate that 1,640 people are denied food benefits every year because of the current law. Republicans said the state should not reward any of these people with a public benefit, and possibly give them an opportunity to trade food stamps for cash.
"It's appropriate to say as a society we are not going to subsidize your addiction," said Assemblyman Ray Haynes (R-Murrieta).
"The welfare benefits are not going to help them get off drugs," he added.
The legislation, AB 1796, was approved by a 42-27 vote, just one more than needed for passage in the Assembly.
Two Republicans supported the measure, Bill Maze from Visalia and Keith Richman of Northridge.
If the measure is approved by the state Senate and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California would join 32 other states and territories that extend food stamp benefits to people convicted of drug possession. Twelve other states allow people with more serious drug convictions to get food stamps.
During debate Monday, Democrats said that California and other states already allow convicted murderers, rapists, thieves and others to receive food stamps.
They said it would be cruel to cut off food stamps to people trying to rehabilitate themselves after serving time for drug possession.
"The food stamps help pay for the food costs while they are in treatment," said Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles). "Those of us who want to help people who are in treatment really ought to be supporting this."
The legislation was among dozens of bills approved Monday by the Assembly and Senate. Among those that passed:
Canada drugs: The Senate approved SB 1144, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), that would allow the state to purchase prescription drugs from Canada for Medi-Cal and the state's other healthcare programs. Lawmakers say the bill could save California more than $30 million a year.
The bill would also require the state to seek a waiver from the federal government, since such importations are presently illegal.
Sick prisoners: The Assembly approved SB 1946, which would expand a program allowing the state to release terminally ill prisoners who have six months to live. The bill requires more aggressive notification of prisoners of the "compassionate release" program.
The state has seen a steady decline in the number of prisoners released to die at home, from 31 in 1996 to 10 last year.
After being released, prisoners would receive Medi-Cal, a state health program for the poor, but the state would save an estimated $750,000 in prison costs per year.
L.A. Coliseum: The Assembly also approved a measure, AB 2805, that could extend for 12 years a redevelopment area around the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to set the stage for a possible new NFL team.
The bill allows the Los Angeles City Council to vote on improvements to the 574-acre Hoover area. It could get new shops and housing under the special redevelopment financing agreements, and possibly ease the way for a new football team that might want to renovate the coliseum.
Times staff writer Jordan Rau contributed to this report.
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