War on Drugs

Alabama's Biased, Punitive, and Expensive War on Marijuana Is Ruining Lives

Black people in Alabama are more than four times as likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense, according to a new report.

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Alabama resident Mary Thomas, 75, pleaded guilty to a felony marijuana offense in 2011. // SPLC

Mary Thomas, 75, doesn't look like the typical target of a drug sting. But that didn't make any difference to the police who entered her home in Northport, Alabama, in 2011.

A friend of Thomas' grandson had been staying at the house, which had an informal open-door policy for acquaintances who were down on their luck. The new guest wasn't just having a rough time, though; he was a confidential police informant, trying to keep out of jail by giving the police leads on illegal activity.

People at the house, including Thomas, occasionally smoked marijuana, and when the police searched her home, they found a bag of pot. They cuffed Thomas and took $300 from her wallet and another $50 out of her coat pocket under the state's notorious civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow law enforcement to seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity.

"I had just got paid, and she searched me and took my money out of my pocket," Thomas says. "I tried to explain. There's a way you should be treated. I feel like I was done wrong because I was at home. I wasn't out there selling nothing to nobody."

Thomas was taken to jail, charged with a felony marijuana offense, and pleaded guilty. The court imposed roughly $2,000 in fines and fees, and she also faced the costs of hiring a lawyer. Of course, paying off those fees and fines was all the more difficult because Thomas' drivers license was automatically suspended for six months, making it extremely difficult to get to work. (Alabama is one of a dozen states that suspends licenses for drug offenses, although it recently exempted some petty drug crimes from automatic suspensions.)

Taylor also lost her right to vote because of Alabama's felon disenfranchisement law.

"I couldn't even vote for Obama," Taylor says. "I sat there and cried. I've been voting ever since I could. It made me feel good to vote and put the little tag on that says, 'I voted,' to say I'm a part of what's happening. But then someone comes in your house and takes your rights like that."

Taylor is just one of several cases profiled in a report Thursday on Alabama's punitive, biased, and wasteful war on marijuana, and one of thousands of people every year who are charged with a marijuana offense in Alabama.

In 2016, the latest year for which numbers are available, Alabama police made 2,351 arrests for marijuana possession, according to the report by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center. In that year alone, marijuana enforcement cost the state an estimated $22 million, the study says.

Furthermore, the report found that the state's marijuana enforcement is heavily biased. Black residents are four times as likely to be charged with a marijuana offense than whites, despite roughly equivalent usage rates.

"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."

The report also says that marijuana cases are clogging up the state's forensics labs. As of March, Alabama's forensics labs had 10,000 pending marijuana cases. "At the same time," the report says, "the department had a backlog of 1,121 biology/DNA cases, including about 550 'crimes against persons' cases such as homicide, sexual assault and robbery."

While marijuana decriminalization is very unlikely to make it through Alabama's Republican-controlled legislature, local prosecutor elections offer another avenue for reform.

This November, voters in Jefferson County, Alabama, will choose between two district attorney candidates: Republican Mike Anderton and Democrat Danny Carr. Anderton says he will continue to enforce the laws on the books, but Carr, whose platform is relatively reform-oriented, has expressed doubts about using D.A. resources to go after low-level marijuana offenders.

"If elected District Attorney, it will absolutely be my obligation to look at every case and consider all the facts," Carr tweeted earlier this month. "But it's hard to imagine that our limited resources should be devoted to jailing individuals for marijuana possession instead of focusing on serious violent crimes."

Carr later clarified that he would still prosecute marijuana cases, but maybe treat them "like a traffic citation. Jail for small amounts of marijuana is a no no."

Local civil liberties groups were cautiously optimistic about Carr's statement, such as it was.

"While we appreciate Mr. Carr's public statement in support of marijuana reform, we also hope to see him continue to clarify how he intends to implement this policy, and we hope to hear from Republican candidate Mike Anderton," Dillon Nettles, a policy analyst for the ACLU of Alabama, said in a statement. "District Attorneys have the power to transform our criminal justice system, and we are hopeful that Jefferson County's next DA will commit to reform."

The Appleseed report details other cases like Mary Thomas', of people who were subjected to police raids, whose job prospects, savings accounts, and family lives were turned upside down, all over small amounts of marijuana.

After her conviction, Thomas' life took a turn for the worse. She struggled to make it to work without a driver's license, her federal income tax refunds were garnished to pay off her court debts, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She lost 70 pounds and descended into alcohol abuse for several years before catching a public intoxication charge.

One day, her niece brought her marijuana to help her deal with pain and nausea, and Thomas began putting weight back on. Today, her cancer is in remission and she no longer abuses alcohol.

"Marijuana takes the pain and nausea away from you," Thomas says. "I started to eat again. Marijuana saves people's lives."

But until Alabama's marijuana enforcers back off, the state's war on pot will continue to ruin lives.