A new bill seeking to reduce penalties for simple marijuana possession took its first step through the legislature on April 17th by an 11-0 vote in the state Senate Judiciary Committee. This could mean significant reform for the way personal amounts of marijuana are charged, prosecuted, and sentenced.
Current Alabama law divides marijuana possession into two categories: first- and second- degree. Possession of any amount for personal use is a second-degree conviction and a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by not more than one year in jail and a fine not more than $6,000. A first-degree conviction is a Class C felony carrying a punishment of not less than one year and not more than ten years in jail, for any amount and for any purpose other than personal use. First-degree possession also includes any subsequent charges for personal use after the defendant has been previously convicted of misdemeanor second-degree possession.
The new bill would change second-degree possession charges to violations, meaning that offenders would only receive a citation and be released, as opposed to being arrested and booked into jail. An individual could just sign a form agreeing to court proceedings at a later date, just like a traffic ticket, and would only be responsible for a fine up to $250. Further, the new bill proposes allowing an individual two (2) violations (not misdemeanors) before a felony possession charge could be imposed. Under the current law, only one previous conviction is enough to invoke a subsequent felony charge. Finally, any amount less than two (2) ounces may be considered personal use for purposes of charging second degree possession.
Another significant change proposed by the new Alabama bill would allow a possession conviction to be expunged after five years. This would make marijuana charges the only offense in Alabama that can be expunged after an actual conviction—other offenses require that the charges be dismissed.
There’s been gradual reform in this direction in Alabama already: In 2016, the mandatory driver’s license suspension that normally accompanied a marijuana possession charge was eliminated. Additionally, Jefferson County has already started a cite-and-release protocol for misdemeanor marijuana charges. This new bill looks to continue some of those more recent reforms. What are your thoughts on Alabama’s marijuana laws and the trend toward decriminalizing this type of offense?