Cannabis decriminalization has hit a roadblock in the Deep South, as a bill that would have removed criminal penalties for marijuana possession in Alabama failed to advance out of committee.
For years, Rep. Patricia Todd (D-Birmingham) has pushed the issue to no avail in the state’s House of Representatives. This time, the bill fell via a 7-5 vote in the House Judiciary Committee. The bill would have removed criminal penalties for possessing up to one ounce of marijuana, and instead would have had officers issue a citation of up to $250 for the first two possession offenses. The fine would have jumped to $500 for the third offense.
Currently, those possessing an ounce of marijuana in Attorney General Jeff Sessions‘s home state could face a misdemeanor on the first offense, with a bump up to a felony on the second. In effect, this means that an Alabaman who was caught with a joint twice could end up with a felony.
The Alabama Media Group reported that the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Republican Jim Hill, had reservations about the decriminalization push and moved against the bill.
“I think we’re probably headed toward either some type of either decriminalization or lesser emphasis being placed on marijuana,” Hill told the committee. “But it’s illegal. And to say that no matter how many times you use it, how many times it’s personal use, it never rises to the level of a misdemeanor, I just think that’s a mistake.”
Rep. Todd told the Alabama Media Group that she believed political posturing in an election year was what caused the roadblock. “I’m sad,” Todd said. “But it’s an election year. And a lot of people who voted no told me to my face that they were going to vote yes. And I think the roll-call vote scared a lot of people (who) don’t want to look like they’re soft on drugs. But most people sitting there have no concept or understanding of marijuana.”
The decriminalization effort’s companion bill in the Alabama State Senate fared a bit better. A bill that was almost the same one Todd presented to the House was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee by a razor-thin 6-4 vote. Thanks to the efforts of Republican State Senator Dick Brewbaker of Montgomery, the debate over marijuana is now guaranteed to happen on the Senate floor.
After Brewbaker told the committee that nobody wants to hang felonies on kids for life, and that the state is currently arresting more people for pot than opioids, Sen. Phil Williams rebutted that he would be filibustering the bill if it did make its way to the Senate floor for a proper vote. Williams claimed in his work as a substance abuse counselor showed him people’s addictions start with marijuana.
The bills are not perfect, according to cannabis advocates. NORML is not a fan of provisions in the bill that would reclassify the possession of more than one ounce of marijuana as a felony.
“While NORML is supportive of the former provisions in the bill, we oppose these latter provisions. Marijuana possession offenders, many of them young people, should not be saddled with a felony record and the lifelong penalties and stigma associated with it,” said NORML in a statement.
Generally, marijuana possession arrests rates are trending downwards in Alabama according to the FBI’s data. In 2008 the state saw 9,965 possession arrests and 244 sales arrests. In 2012, only 3,600 people total were arrested for all marijuana possession and sales offenses combined.
In a 2013 report, the ACLU found a severe racial disparity in marijuana arrests in Alabama. Sixty percent of the marijuana possession arrests are of black people, yet black people account for less than 25 percent of the population. Alabama was also number 11 on the list of states where marijuana accounts for the highest percentage of all drug arrests.
TELL US, do you think Alabama should decriminalize cannabis?