By KIM CHANDLER and MALLORY MOENCH, Associated Press
MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A proposal to lower the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana cleared its first hurdle in the Alabama Legislature on Wednesday, but faces a dubious future as it heads to a possible floor vote during an election year.
The bill would make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana punishable by a fine instead of jail time. An offense would be classified as a violation, a step below a misdemeanor, and carry a fine of up to $250.
The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 6-4 to approve the bill, sponsored by Sen. Dick Brewbaker, a Republican from Pike Road.
“Look, guys, I know there is going to be a lot of difference of opinion on this bill, but nobody in here wants to hang felonies or drug conviction misdemeanors on a bunch of college kids,” Brewbaker said. “We are arresting more people for marijuana than for opioids,” Brewbaker said.
If approved, Alabama would join 22 states and the District of Columbia in decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The bill now moves to the full Alabama Senate. However, Brewbaker said he believed the outlook for the legislation was “a little grim, frankly, in an election year.”
The bill drew staunch criticism from one member of the committee.
“I’m a no. I’m going to stay a no,” said Sen. Phil Williams, a Republican from Rainbow City. Williams said his first job involved working with teen addicts. “I worked with a bunch of addicts, almost all of whom started with marijuana.”
Brewbaker responded that he believed alcohol was the drug that led to addiction.
Other committee members praised Brewbaker, a conservative Republican, for bringing the bill.
“It’s about time we stepped into the 21st century,” said Democratic Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison of Birmingham.
A bill nearly identical to the one that passed in the Senate on Wednesday faltered in the House of Representatives on the same day, where the House Judiciary Committee defeated it by a vote of 7-5. It was sponsored by Rep. Patricia Todd, a Democrat from Birmingham. Todd, in her final year in the Legislature, has been working on the issue for the past 12 years. She has also sponsored legislation to legalize medicinal marijuana.
“I’m sad. But it’s an election year. And a lot of people who voted no told me to my face that they were going to vote yes,” Todd said. “And I think the roll-call vote scared a lot of people (who) don’t want to look like they’re soft on drugs. But most people sitting there have no concept or understanding of marijuana.”