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New report on marijuana highlights questions with enforcement

By WILL WHATLEY, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A recently-released report dives deep into how law enforcement is battling marijuana and the results that fight is having on society.

Released by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center, the report, entitled ‘Alabama’s War on Marijuana: Assessing the Fiscal and Human Toll on Criminalization,’ is the first of its kind to examine the fiscal, public safety, and human costs of marijuana prohibition in the state, according to the authors.

It goes on to say that marijuana prohibition costs the state and its municipalities an estimated $22 million a year, creates a dangerous backlog at the agency that tests forensic evidence in violent crimes, and needlessly ensnares thousands of people – disproportionately African Americans – in the criminal justice system.

Findings include:

  • The overwhelming majority of people arrested for marijuana offenses from 2012 to 2016, nearly 89 percent, were arrested for possession.
  • Despite studies showing black and white people use marijuana at the same rates, black people were approximately four times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession (both misdemeanors and felonies) in 2016 – and five times as likely to be arrested for felony possession.
  • Alabama spent an estimated $22 million to enforce the prohibition against marijuana possession in 2016 – enough to fund 191 additional preschool classrooms, 571 more K-12 teachers or 628 more corrections officers.
  • The enforcement of marijuana possession laws has created a crippling backlog at the state agency tasked with analyzing forensic evidence in all criminal cases, including violent crimes.

“Alabama’s war on marijuana is a monumental waste of tax dollars, undermines public safety, and is enforced with a staggering racial bias,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “The impact of an arrest for possessing marijuana is often significant, and the consequences can last for years. Even an arrest for the possession of a small amount of marijuana can upend somebody’s life by limiting their access to employment, housing and college loan programs, and leaving them trapped in a never-ending cycle of court debt.”

State Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) says there is more to it than what the numbers show.

“When the term ‘state resources’ is used, it is including local and county law enforcement because almost no state police or even district attorneys prosecute simple marijuana possession,” said Ward.

“A good example is if you look at the state prison population, out of roughly 21,000 inmates, less that 40 are there for marijuana and those cases are primarily trafficking due to such a large amount they had,” Ward said.

Ward added that Alabama court dockets very rarely deal with solely marijuana possession cases.

“The numbers can be misleading too because you have cases where many are prosecuted for crimes including burglary, robbery and marijuana at the same time and the main penalty is burglary but someone can use the stat to claim it was a ‘marijuana prosecution’ when in fact that is not the primary crime. I’d like to see how many arrests and prosecutions solely for simple marijuana possession. It’s just very rare.”

As far as the racial breakdown statistic, Ward agree that there is a disparity.

“It’s nationwide for all drug crimes across the board. I don’t have an answer but it is a discussion we all need to have.”

Read the complete report: Alabama’s War on Marijuana: Assessing the human toll of criminalization.

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