An Alabama Senate committee on Wednesday approved a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession.
The Judiciary Committee advanced the legislation after brief discussion in a 6-3 vote. It now heads to the full Senate for consideration.
Under the proposal, sponsored by Sen. Bobby Singleton (D), possessing less than two ounces of marijuana would be a simple violation that carries a $250 fine. That’s consistent with a previous version of the senator’s decriminalization bill that also moved through committee in 2019 but later died without a floor vote.
But unlike that last version, this one also seems to take a fine-only approach to possession of more than two ounces of marijuana as well, or possession in the first degree.
Possessing two or more ounces of cannabis would be a class C misdemeanor punishable by a $250 fine for the first offense and $500 for a second offense. Being convicted a third time would be classified as class D felony, but it would still be punishable “only” by a $750 fine without the threat of jail time.
That would make a significant departure from Singleton’s last decriminalization proposal, which stipulated that possessing more than two ounces would be a class C felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The current bill also provides that a person convicted of possession would be able to petition the courts to have their records expunged, and that could be granted as long as the person doesn’t have any other violations, misdemeanors or felonies (except for “minor traffic violations”) in the preceding five years.
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Singleton said during Wednesday’s hearing that the governor’s office and other lawmakers have said that they want to further analyze the legislation. “If we move it today out of here, then we’re willing to get with those folks who continue to vet it,” he said.
“More than 60percent of Alabamians think it should be legal for adults to use cannabis,” Karen O’Keefe, state policies director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “Reducing Alabama’s penalty for cannabis possession to a fine-only criminal offense is a modest step forward, but it is a very important one. This bill would save thousands of individuals from the trauma of arrest and incarceration. We call on lawmakers to swiftly enact the bill.”
The committee’s approval of the decriminalization proposal comes one week after the full Senate passed a bill to legalize medical cannabis in the state.
To qualify for the program under the measure, patients would have to be diagnosed with one of about 20 conditions, including anxiety, sleep disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and intractable pain. Regulators would not be able to independently add additional conditions, leaving that decision up to lawmakers.
The Senate approved a separate medical cannabis bill in 2019, but the House later severely compromised it. The legislation as enacted would not have legalized patient access; rather, it set up a study commission to explore the issue and make recommendations.
The commission came back with its report in December 2019, with members recommending that medical marijuana be legalized.
There could be additional pressure on the legislature to enact cannabis reform given that voters in neighboring Mississippi approved a medical cannabis reform initiative during the November election.
Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.