Bill would reduce Alabama penalty for marijuana possession

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A bill that would reduce the penalty for marijuana possession in Alabama is scheduled for consideration on Wednesday by both the House and Senate judiciary committees.

Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, and Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, are the bill sponsors. Todd has tried with similar bills for several years to reduce the penalties for marijuana possession. She believes opposition has faded and is optimistic the bill will pass.

"I haven't talked to one person who is against it," Todd said.

Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, said the bill is intended to keep young people from being saddled with serious criminal records for personal use of pot.

"No one is talking about legalizing possession of marijuana," Brewbaker said. "But I haven't talked to anybody who thinks hanging felonies on college kids is a great idea because that follows them around for the rest of their lives."

Current law says possession of marijuana for personal use is a Class A misdemeanor, which can carry a jail sentence of up to a year and a fine of up to $6,000.

A second offense of possession for personal use is a Class C felony, punishable by one to 10 years and a fine of up to $15,000.

The Todd and Brewbaker bills add a a lower tier.

Possession of one ounce or less would be a violation -- considered less serious than a misdemeanor -- and would be punishable only by a fine not to exceed $250. That penalty would apply to both a first and a second offense. A third offense would be a violation punishable by a fine of up to $500.

Brewbaker said he's working with the Alabama District Attorneys' Association on some possible changes to the bill.

"If I don't get the DAs' support, the bill is not going to move forward," Brewbaker said.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said that in practice prosecutors generally seek probation, pretrial diversion, drug court or other alternate penalties for marijuana possession offenders. Ward said that helps make the case for changing the law. But he expects the bill to have opposition and is not sure it will win committee approval.

"People are scared during an election year that they're going to get called soft on crime," Ward said. "If you argue the merits of his bill, it makes sense."

Todd said the deadly problem of opioid addiction is demanding the attention of law enforcement.

"We need all the resources we have to deal with that and not with a little bit of weed," Todd said.

Todd said she believes the time has come for the bill to pass.

"This is not as bad as alcohol," Todd said. "We don't want people to use. But it costs the state a lot of money to enforce the possession law."

Tuesday will be the 13th day of the legislative session out of a possible 30 days.

Ward said the Senate is expected to consider the General Fund budget on Tuesday.

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