Alabama lawmaker would reduce penalties for pot
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Jan 03, 2014 | 4417 views |  0 comments | 42 42 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In this 2013 file photo, state Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Jefferson County at the Madison County Democratic Headquarters in Huntsville. Photo: Bob Gathany, AL.com/The Associated Press
In this 2013 file photo, state Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Jefferson County at the Madison County Democratic Headquarters in Huntsville. Photo: Bob Gathany, AL.com/The Associated Press
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MONTGOMERY — A ticket and a fine for smoking pot?

That's what some marijuana users would get — and nothing more — if the Alabama Legislature passes a bill recently filed by a state lawmaker.

"The cost of processing a person through the criminal justice system for a small amount of marijuana is more than most governments really want to spend," said Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham. "We need to try something different."

Todd is the sponsor of HB76, a bill that would change the state's penalties for people caught in possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.

Under current state law, possession of marijuana "for personal use" is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail, while possession "for other than personal use" is a Class C Felony, which can lead to a sentence of one to 10 years in prison. Anyone caught with more than a kilogram of marijuana, about 2.2 pounds, can face a harsher trafficking charge.

Todd's bill would make possession of less than one ounce of pot a violation, not a misdemeanor, on the first offense. That citation wouldn't appear on the pot-smoker's record as a criminal conviction.

"It would be like a getting a speeding ticket," she said. "There would be a fine, but no criminal record."

A second offense, though, would be a felony under Todd's bill.

Todd said the bill is a logical solution to some of the woes of Alabama's criminal justice system. Jailing and trying individual pot-smokers, she said, places a needless burden on the state's underfunded courts and prisons. Saddling small-time marijuana users with a criminal record, she said, makes it harder for them to move on with their lives.

"Even a misdemeanor can keep you from finding employment," she said.

Even the police might welcome a break from enforcing the current laws, Todd said. Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson didn't agree.

"Making marijuana more available, making the penalties less, is just counterproductive, in my mind," Amerson said.

Amerson said pot impairs judgment, and deputies see the results of that impaired judgment every day. Marijuana use plays some role in the stories of about 90 percent of the people currently in the Calhoun County Jail, Amerson said.

"It's naive, to me, to assume that a drug that is more easily available is not going to be used more," he said.

Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, agreed.

"I think that would send the wrong message," Wood said of the bill. Wood predicted that in conservative Alabama, the bill wouldn't even get out of committee. The Star's attempts to reach Rep. Paul DeMarco, R-Homewood, and Rep. Howard Sanderford, R-Huntsville, were unsuccessful Friday. DeMarco and Sanderford are chairman and vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, the bill's likely first stop in the House.

Even the bill's sponsor said she doubts it will pass in 2014, an election year.

"I'm realistic," she said. "This is Alabama. Even though we tout that we're for small government, most people don't understand this issue, but we've got to take a serious look at it."

Todd has long been an advocate of legalizing marijuana for medical use. If her bill did pass, she said, it would relieve some of the burden on people who acquire the drug for medical reasons.

Todd's biggest ally in the medical marijuana fight, Rep. K. L. Brown, R-Jacksonville, isn't so sure about Todd's current pot bill.

Brown broke ranks with Republicans in 2011 to introduce a medical marijuana bill, inspired by his late sister, who died of breast cancer and used the drug to ease her pain. Brown said he'd prefer an all-out legalization of medical marijuana to Todd's reduced-penalty approach for all pot users.

"It seems like this could open the door to recreational use, which isn't helpful," he said.

Brown said the perception of pot as an illicit, recreational drug is one of the biggest obstacles the medical marijuana effort faces. He said he doesn't plan to introduce a medical marijuana bill this year, but is working on a bill to introduce in 2015. That bill might be worded to legalize medical pot in a non-smokable form, he said, to address some of the concerns of doctors.

"The medical profession, as a rule, I don't think they discount the effectiveness of the use of marijuana," he said. "They have a problem with people smoking it."

The 2014 Legislative session begins Jan. 14.

Capitol & statewide correspondent Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

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