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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.

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

Photo Credit: SPLC

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  • Billy Bones||

    Color me shocked...The state that gave us racist drug-warriors such as Jeff Sessions and Roy Moore is actually a racist drug-warrior state. Next thing you're going to tell me is that California is a left-wing liberal state.

  • Bubba Jones||

    The DA isn't the one who placed an informant in grandma's house.

    This begs the question: What got the cop's attention that led them to put a CI in her house? Or was the CI just a free agent snitch like Huggy Bear?

  • Shakes||

    Are you on a mission to blame that family for something?

  • Bubba Jones||

    The person least likely at fault is the DA.

    I have placed no bets on any other horses.

  • John Thomas||

    That really doesn't matter. The point is NO ONE should be persecuted for possessing a plant that is not addictive and FAR less harmful than alcohol.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    While I am for legalizing Pot (hell, I'm for legalizing Heroin), I would hesitate to adopt the 'Pot is less harmful than alcohol' narrative. Both sides of the War 0n Drugs are given to hyperbole , and damn lIttle scientific research has been done on the subject.

  • commentguy||

    Given that it's plausibly true to state that nobody ever died of a pot overdose, it is defensible to claim that it is less harmful than alcohol.

  • Tony||

    How do you know that taking a hard line on marijuana isn't preventing Alabama from becoming a useless shithole state?

  • John Thomas||

    lol - Too late. - Racism and bigotry already did that. --- Every person who chooses near harmless marijuana over addictive, very harmful alcohol, improves their health tremendously - as well as the lives of their family and community.

  • Tony||

    Yeah, for some inexplicable reason people also missed my sarcasm when this was about Mississippi.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Alabama is a racist, ignorance, misogynistic, backward, authoritarian, superstitious stain and drain on the United States of America and decency.

    Faux libertarians prefer to disregard this point because the bigoted yahoos migrated from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party just in time to become a pillar of the conservative electoral coalition for ignorance and intolerance.

  • Exsqueezeyou||

    I call bullshit on your assertion of "migration." Dims are still voting for their racist masters.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Strom Thurmond says you're uninformed or lying.

    Carry on, clinger.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    Strom Thurmond is one person, he doesn't prove any sort of mass migration of people from the Democratic party to the Republican party.

  • cosMICjester||

    Good don't go there I'm sure they won't miss u. The majority of ignorance & intolerance these days comes from the fascist far left & the democrap drones in the borg commie collective. Real freedom & liberty means the right of freedom of association. All minorities have it matter of fact they scream about not wanting crackas around. Yet if whitey says the same he's a bigot, NAZI or white supremacist. Birds of a feather flock together go hang out in some ghetto in Newark you'll love it there.

  • John Thomas||

    Science and widespread experience have shown marijuana is not addictive and is far less harmful than alcohol. - Yet, more than 600,000 innocent Americans are arrested for simple marijuana possession each year and made second-class citizens - for life!

    They will forever face large obstacles to decent employment, education, travel, housing, government benefits, and will always go into court with one strike against them. They can even have their children taken away!

    25 million Americans are now locked away in this very un-American sub-class because of this bogus "criminal" record. That has a horrible effect on the whole country, being a massive waste of human potential.

    The fraudulent marijuana prohibition has never accomplished one positive thing. It has only caused vast amounts of crime, corruption, violence, death and the severe diminishing of everyone's freedom.

    There is no more important domestic issue than ending what is essentially the American Inquisition.

  • MSimon||

    Science has shown there is no such thing as addiction.

    Dr. Lonny Shavelson found that 70% of female heroin addicts were sexually abused in childhood.

    Addiction is a symptom of PTSD. Look it up.

    Making war on the afflicted is not a moral policy.

  • John Thomas||

    Nonsense. -- Addiction involves severe withdrawal symptoms that compel continuous use to be avoided. Marijuana does't have them so is NOT addictive. -- Drugs that DO have them and ARE addictive, are alcohol, tobacco, heroin, meth, cocaine, etc.

  • Arch Stanton||

    To clarify, what you are describing is physical dependence. Addiction is a psychological condition where a person can't stop a behavior despite negative consequences from the behavior. That's where how gambling can be addictive despite not causing withdrawal. That is not to say dependence can't play an outsized role in the addiction process.

    As for MJ, I can tell you from personal experience that it is addictive. I struggled mightily to kick it. That's not to say I think it should be illegal. Porn and food can be addictive, but I don't think we should ban either. I just think we should be honest and not say MJ is a harm free substance.

  • John Thomas||

    Wrong -- 'Psychological addiction" is just a term invented by prohibitionists and bogus "treatment" quacks when they couldn't get away with calling marijuana addictive anymore. - When you look at the "criteria" for this fantasy condition, you see it is just the repetition of any enjoyable experience, like playing golf, watching movies or eating watermelon.

    Being able to take it or leave it is one of the many things consumers like about marijuana.

    Anecdotal "information" carries little weight for various good reasons. - One is you could be making it up. - Stick to the verifiable facts.

  • MSimon||

    Addiction is a symptom of PTSD. Look it up.

  • Zeb||

    I feel like I was done wrong because I was at home. I wasn't out there selling nothing to nobody.

    I have only sympathy and pity for this woman. But people need to figure out that there is nothing wrong with going out and selling some weed either. Too many people seem to think that possession is no big deal, but dealing still should be. Punishing people for any of those things is completely immoral.

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    Too many people seem to think that possession is no big deal, but dealing still should be.

    This is idiotic. Dealers are proponents of prohibition, for obvious reasons.

  • Exsqueezeyou||

    The obvious reason being that dealers like the prospect of going to jail for the sale of controlled substances as opposed to being charged for selling in the black market that is likely to continue.

    You know they still sell moonshine on the black market.

  • MSimon||

    "If the trade is ever legalized, it will cease to be profitable from that time. The more difficulties that attend it, the better for you and us." -- Directors of Jardine-Matheson
    Boodle Boys

  • John Thomas||

    I have never seen any illegal moonshine in my long life. -- If it does exist somewhere, it's such a tiny phenomena, it has no effect on the country.

  • SQRLSY One||

    "... her federal income tax refunds were garnished to pay off her court debts... "

    Hey people!!! UNDERWITHHOLD your income taxes, so that Uncle Fuckhead canNOT rip you off!!! OWE Uncle Fuckhead every year when he comes around with his IRS billy club, and then they can't do this to you!!!

    Also, can we PLEASE get Canada to take over the USA? Can we militarily attack them with like 3 soldiers who are sedated to half-sleep, and issued pillows for a [pillow-fight instead of guns, ya know... And then allow Canada to retaliate and take us over? Because Canada does a MUCH better job of legalizing pot, and balancing their budget, and what not...

    CANADA PLEASE COME DOWN HERE AND CONQUER US!!!!!

  • cosMICjester||

    MOVE there already. Although Trudope is ushering in the caliphate & every 3rd world brown he can get so if you're white they might not let u in.

  • Marty Feldman's Eyes||

    Can we militarily attack them with like 3 soldiers who are sedated to half-sleep, and issued pillows for a [pillow-fight instead of guns, ya know...

    Yeah, 'cause if we didn't sedate them and give them pillows for guns 3 'murican soldiers is about all it would take to conquer Canada ;)

  • StackOfCoins||

    "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"

    I once tried explaining to some lefty friends how every individual vote is largely inconsequential, and thus a vote is
    essentially worthless or nearly so in terms of direct utility, and how voting in large elections like US political races is a waste of time and probably money. And they insisted that it is't worthless because of this logic, but dressed up in inspirational rhetoric about democracy. I tried to explain they just enjoyed the dopamine hit of feeling like they had a say, when mathematically few if any elections come down to a single vote or a handful of votes or even several hundred votes; that such a vote-count would produce different numbers in a recount. That whether they voted or not in this or that election demonstrably influenced nothing. But it fell upon deaf ears.

    It is this idea that voting is a moral good, an imperative, a qualification to argue about politics, etc etc. that is so unfortunate. It's tantamount to an endorsement of the bipartisan model; like picking the less-bad person is the only rational option. Staying home or running an errand is a better use of the time.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Why did you waste time composing a comment that will never influence the debate? Is your life so worthless that you couldn't find a better use of the time?

  • John Thomas||

    Nice try at voter suppression. - But we're exposing that kind of monstrous theft. - See corrupt, Georgia candidate for Governor Kemp who has wiped thousands of names from the voter roles by abusing his position as Secretary of State.

  • No Longer Amused||

    Why go after real crime when you can keep yourself busy with bullshit harassment?

  • XM||

    Racial disparity in drug related arrests didn't go down significantly after Colorado legalized pot - at least not initially.

    Blacks are more likely to get arrested for a number of crimes compared to other racial groups, not just whites. They're also more likely to sell to strangers in high crime areas targeted by police. Some of them are repeat offenders.

    www.politifact.com/punditfact/.....es-blacks/

    This is somewhat sloppy reporting. Even Jacob Sullum admits that a tiny fraction of the prison population are there only for using drugs (not selling or manufacturing them).The state can reduce the fine and reform asset forfeiture without legalizing drugs.

    When it comes to drugs and immigration, reason sort of becomes agenda driven partisans they claim to abhor.

  • John Thomas||

    Jail is not worst harm of the fraudulently enacted marijuana prohibition. - Science and widespread experience have shown marijuana is not addictive and is far less harmful than alcohol. - Yet, more than 600,000 innocent Americans are arrested for simple marijuana possession each year and made second-class citizens - for life!

    They will forever face large obstacles to decent employment, education, travel, housing, government benefits, and will always go into court with one strike against them. They can even have their children taken away!

    25 million Americans are now locked away in this very un-American sub-class because of this bogus "criminal" record. That has a horrible effect on the whole country, being a massive waste of human potential.

    The fraudulent marijuana prohibition has never accomplished one positive thing. It has only caused vast amounts of crime, corruption, violence, death and the severe diminishing of everyone's freedom.

    There is no more important domestic issue than ending what is essentially the American Inquisition.

  • cosMICjester||

    legalize it don't criticize it

  • Tell It Right||

    Want to know how to convince us Alabamians to legalize pot? Join it with getting rid of welfare. I know. I know. Those of you who call yourselves "libertarian" think first and foremost about pot because it's your god. Me, I'm for people doing whatever they want....as long as the rest of us don't have to pay for the consequences of your life choices. Get rid of welfare and I politically support you messing yourself up.

  • Tony||

    How very noble coming from a resident of the 4th most federally dependent state in the country.

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