Supporters of Proposition 5 say their goal is to rehabilitate drug addicts and non-violent offenders instead of locking them up.
San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi agrees.
"It's cheaper to give a person treatment instead of locking him up in prison and secondly, I think most experts agree that addiction is an illness and it needs to be treated as opposed to incarcerating people in some cases for years and years," said Adachi.
The ballot measure would pour more money into treatment programs and create oversight to monitor progress. At-risk youth would be among those eligible to participate. Enrollees would be given numerous chances to complete treatment even if they violate the rules.
Dan Abrahamson from Drug Policy Alliance Network co-authored the initiative.
"We give people a few tries and expect relapses. We say if you're going to get more and better treatment for your relapse. But at some point, the judge can punish you by putting you in jail or prison," said Abrahamson.
Opponents like San Mateo County District Attorney Jim Fox say Proposition 5 gives "get out of jail free" cards to offenders because it limits a judge's discretion to send to jail those who violate treatment.
"There has to be consequences and if the consequence is okay, we're going to re-admit you, but we're not going to allow the court to place you in jail for a brief period of time, that destroys the effectiveness because there's no accountability," said Fox.
Opponents describe this initiative as proposition 36 "on steroids." Prop. 36 was passed by voters eight years ago, and it allows first and second time non-violent offenders convicted of simple drug possession to go into treatment rather than serve time.
Proposition 5 would shorten parole for most drug offenses, including sales. Police Union Chief Gary Delagnes believes that would eliminate an important tool for police officers.
"If you're a habitual drug user or if you're a habitual criminal, judges will invoke as a condition of probation a 10-35 search condition, which means that you can be searched without probable cause at any time," said Delagnes.
"You take them off parole and they're no longer subject to search and seizure, so it's an absolute unmitigated disaster. It's going to allow people to offend six or seven times before they even face the possibility of going to jail," said Fox.
Abrahamson argues it this way.
"California is only one of two states in the entire country that imposes parole supervision on non-violent parolees after they served their prison time," said Abrahamson. "Proposition 5 simply reduces the length of supervision for non violent paroles. It doesn't cut it off. It reduces it to bring the state more in line with what the rest of the country does."
"A drug addict will be able to use drugs with impunity. I think that goes to the heart and purpose of proposition five which is to legalize drugs," said Fox.
"I think it's going to save hundreds of thousands of lives every year by providing treatment instead of incarceration," said Abrahamson.
The legislative analyst estimates that the expanded drug programs could cost the state$1 billion a year. But it could also save the same amount because it might reduce prison costs.