An Alabama Senate committee has approved a bill to decriminalize possession of small amounts of cannabis and expunge convictions for past cannabis-related offenses. The measure, Senate Bill 160, was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday by a vote of 5-4.
The bill from Democratic Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton would decriminalize possession of less than two ounces of cannabis and remove the threat of incarceration for such offenses. Instead, possession of less than two ounces of cannabis would be a violation punishable by a fine of no more than $250.
Possessing more than two ounces of cannabis would be a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $250 on the first offense. A second conviction would also be a misdemeanor carrying a maximum fine of $500, while a third charge would be classified as a felony punishable by a fine of up to $750. The bill does not affect charges for drug trafficking offenses or possession of more than two ounces of cannabis.
Under current Alabama law, possession of any amount of marijuana for personal use is considered a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $6,000 and up to a year in jail, including for a first offense. Possessing any amount of cannabis for other than personal use is classified as a felony carrying penalties of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.
Attorney John Brinkley told local media that incarcerating people for low-level cannabis offenses is putting pressure on Alabama’s local jails, which spend about $60 a day to keep each inmate behind bars. Under SB 160, minor cannabis possession charges would no longer subject offenders to jail time or probation.
“I think that we’re already moving in the right direction for what Singleton is interested in doing here,” Brinkley said. “And I don’t think that it’s something that’s going to put a lot of people at risk because, quite frankly, people have been using marijuana left and right and have been for generations.”
Bill Would Expunge Minor Marijuana Convictions
Singleton’s bill would also provide for the expungement of convictions for low-level cannabis possession offenses. Those convicted of possessing less than two ounces of cannabis would be permitted to petition the courts for an expungement. Petitioners would qualify for expungement if they have not had any more felonies, misdemeanors, or violations (except for minor traffic offenses) in the preceding five years.
Marty Schelper, the founder of the cannabis policy reform group Alabama Cannabis Coalition, said the legislation to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis would keep minor offenders from entering the state’s criminal justice system.
“It would lower the populations of our prisons,” she explained. “You know lives and families would not be destroyed for something that’s legal in 33 other states.”
“Somebody could get caught with just a little bit of cannabis in a small baggy, go to jail; they get caught up in the justice system,” Schelper added.
But Madison County District Attorney Tim Gann is not sure that cannabis policy reform will have a long-term effect in reducing overall crime.
“Legalizing marijuana would take pressure off the court system on the front end,” Gann said. “But on the back end, the residual effects of another addictive substance being legalized will probably outweigh the initial downturn in cases.”
Schelper disagrees, and said, “I don’t think legalization of recreational cannabis use is going to cause more people to use cannabis. People are already using cannabis.”
A previous version of Singleton’s bill was also passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee last year but failed to gain the approval of the full chamber. With the panel’s approval again this year, SB 160 now awaits action from the full Alabama Senate.