AL: House, Senate Committees To Consider Bills Easing Marijuana Punishments

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Two legislative committees will take up bills this week that, if approved, could ease punishments for simple possession of marijuana.

The bills, sponsored by Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham and Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Pike Road, should appear in the House and Senate Judiciary committees Wednesday afternoon. The legislation would, among other items, make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana punishable by a fine, not jail time.

“You don’t want to hang felonies on college kids for simple possession that are going to follow them for the rest of their days,” Brewbaker said.

The bills would not affect laws dealing with posessing or trafficking larger amounts of marijuana. A message seeking comment was left on Monday with Todd.

The success of the bills, like most criminal justice initiatives, hinges on the support or at least the neutrality of the state’s district attorneys.  Brewbaker said he was expecting an amendment from the DAs that he said would address the enforcement of simple possession laws.

“We need to find a way to make sure we’re not charging people with intent to distribute unless there’s actual evidence of intent,” Brewbaker said. “That’s one of the criticisms of the law right now. It’s not clear what rises to the level of evidence of intent.”

A message seeking comment was left with Barry Matson, the director of the Office of Prosecution Services, on Monday.

With few exceptions, possession of marijuana in Alabama for anything other than personal use is a Class C Felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $15,000 fine. Possession of marijuana for personal use is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $6,000 fine.

The number of people sent to the state’s correctional facilities for marijuana possession is relatively small. According to the Alabama Sentencing Commission, about 265 people went to prison in 2015 for possession of marijuana in the first degree. That year, about 24,000 people served time in Alabama correctional facilities.

But Brewbaker said the law would ensure arrests for small amounts of marijuana possession would not follow someone throughout their lives.

“I was in college once myself,” he said. “You’re not going to get old heads on young shoulders.”

Todd and Brewbaker’s bills would tie offense levels to amounts. A person would need to have two or more ounces of marijuana to face a Class C felony. For one to two ounces, a person would face a Class D felony. Alabama law caps incarceration for Class D felonies at two years, with any prison time served in a community corrections facility. A Class D felony does not count toward Alabama’s Habitual Offender Law (also known as ‘three strikes you’re out”).

Possession of less than an ounce of marijuana would become a violation, without any jail time. A first or second offense would be subject to a fine of no more than $250. A third or subsequent offense would push the fine up to $500.

The bills specifically exclude edible products and CBD oil, a marijuana derivative with little THC that has shown promise in treating some medical conditions. State law governs the use of CBD oil, the subject of a study at the University of Alabama Birmingham.

Brewbaker, who worked with Rep. Christopher England, D-Tuscaloosa, last years on bills that ended judicial override in death penalty cases, said bipartisan efforts could boost the chances of passage.

“Having Democrats and Republicans pushing the same bill seems to have some effect,” Brewbaker said. “It did on judicial override.”