Imagine you are sitting on a park bench in almost any city in Alabama. You are young, perhaps, or maybe old, or maybe middle age. Maybe you have a joint or a small bag of marijuana in your pocket.
In 21 states across the country, you would be perfectly within your rights. But in Alabama, possession of marijuana in even the smallest amount can lead to a cascading series of personal crises: An arrest. A ride in a police car. A booking. A night or more in jail, at a minimum, waiting for a bail hearing. And upon conviction? Up to a year in jail and a $15,000 fine.
In Alabama, that scenario is not the stuff of imaginings. It is the reality in a state that still jails its residents for the simple possession of cannabis, treating the possession of marijuana as a criminal offense. In communities with an intense police presence, as are many Black and Brown communities, such arrests – and the impacts they have on the lives of ordinary people – are not uncommon.
Montgomery City Councillor Marche Johnson is examining a way to make those encounters less painful. With the assistance of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the District 3 representative is advocating for a policy change that would make it possible for police in the city to write a ticket for a charge of misdemeanor possession instead of making an arrest.
Known as citation in lieu of arrest, such a policy change has already been in force in Tuscaloosa since last year. Other cities in Alabama, including Huntsville, are considering following suit.
As in Tuscaloosa, the policy change in Montgomery would not affect the adjudication or potential punishment for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. But it would treat the offense like other misdemeanors, such as speeding tickets or running a red light. Instead of being ensnared in the legal system on a misdemeanor offense – facing the potential of a six-month driver’s license suspension, the loss of a job, not to mention child and elder care headaches and stiff court fines and fees – people charged with the crime could go back to work, school or family and appear in court at a later date.
“Seeing that Tuscaloosa has already passed an ordinance, I wanted to get ahead of it here,” Johnson said. “We have seen that Black men have been disproportionately imprisoned in Alabama for even recreational use of drugs. I represent a district that is over 75% Black, and my community has been impacted by this.
“We know that these people should not have to get arrested. We know that this will save the city dollars. We know this will make prisons less crowded. We know this will save law enforcement time and effort. So, I said, we need to do this here. Let’s do it. We need the police on the streets solving real crimes.”
Movement for change
The proposal is still at an early stage. Johnson held a town hall meeting at a city community center to discuss it on Feb. 18, and she has yet to introduce legislation. She said she plans to do so later this spring, perhaps as soon as April.
The initiative is part of a burgeoning movement across the country to reduce penalties for possession of marijuana, as marijuana laws change at a rapid pace across all 50 states. In Alabama, medical marijuana use has been legal since May 2021, though its dispensation and consumption are tightly controlled. Bills to decriminalize recreational use have failed repeatedly in the state Legislature.
Alabama lags far behind many other states.
As of March 1, 37 states and the District of Columbia allow for the medical use of marijuana, plus Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Another 21 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, allow for recreational use. And many other states and municipalities have decriminalized marijuana by removing or lowering the penalties for its use, while retaining civil fines and penalties. Among them, in addition to Tuscaloosa, are Athens, Georgia; El Paso and San Antonio, Texas; and New Orleans.
“Honestly, this is the baby-est of baby steps with regard to criminal justice reform,” SPLC Alabama Policy Director Jerome Dees said of the Montgomery proposal.
Dees has been working with Johnson to formulate language for the policy change. He and his team are also supporting efforts to decriminalize marijuana on the state level. He said that HB 13, a state bill that would allow for the issuance of a citation instead of an arrest for certain offenses like possession of small amounts of marijuana, passed in the House Judiciary Committee this week.
“The general trend is moving towards outright legalizing marijuana use,” Dees said. “In Alabama, that is not yet the case. So, while this does not change the criminal classification of marijuana possession at all, it does reduce the tension and heightened anxiety that currently exist around that interaction between citizens and law enforcement.”
Law enforcement support
Law enforcement leaders have been broadly supportive of such changes, Dees said.
“It’s one of those rare issues where we have seen alignment across both sides of the spectrum,” Dees said. “All of the points we have made have been fiscally conservative talking points. We’ve gotten significant support from the law enforcement community. They understand this makes for a better use of their time and resources, and there is the understanding as well that it is good policy for all Alabamians.”
In Tuscaloosa, where police estimate they handle about 1,000 misdemeanor marijuana arrests each year, Assistant Police Chief Steve Rice has been vocal in his enthusiasm for the new policy, which went into effect last July.
“So what that has given us is the ability to not have to tie up an officer for two hours on a physical arrest,” Rice said in an interview with News Channel 6 WBRC in July. “It’s mainly an administrative procedural thing on our end that allows us to write the citations. We’re obviously still going to take the marijuana from them because it’s still illegal, but they are allowed to leave the scene with a citation. Now, there are still consequences, still the court date and fines.”
For the SPLC, advocacy of the change meshes with two major goals: reducing rates of incarceration and promoting economic justice.
“We understand that people in [majority-white] areas of Birmingham or Montgomery don’t smoke weed less than do people in [majority-Black] areas,” Dees said. “And I think we all understand that it’s overkill, it’s unnecessary and it doesn’t serve any purpose for public safety.”
Photo at top: In Montgomery, Alabama, the Southern Poverty Law Center is assisting with a proposed policy change that would enable city police to issue citations in lieu of arrest for misdemeanor marijuana possession. (Credit: Adam Freine/Alamy Stock Photo)