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Alabama Wasted $21,000 to Jail a Man for 15 Months Over $10 of Cannabis

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If you needed any more proof that marijuana prohibition is a futile and outright racist public policy, take a look at the situation in Alabama, which wastes approximately $22 million on cannabis enforcement without putting a dent in the supply of or demand for marijuana in the state.

Enforcing cannabis prohibition costs Alabama taxpayers approximately $22 million per year, which would be enough to fund an additional 191 preschool classrooms or pay 571 more K‑12 teachers, according to a joint study from the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

But instead of investing in the state’s children, those tax dollars are being used to slap residents with criminal records that severely limit their access to education and diminish their job prospects. 

The impact of an arrest for possessing marijuana is often significant, and the consequences can last for years,” Frank Knaack, Executive Director of Alabama Appleseed, said via press release. 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.”

Those hardships have impacted black residents at a disproportionate rate. Even though white people and black people consume cannabis at roughly the same rate, black people were at least 10 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis offences than white people in seven jurisdictions in Alabama. And these were not brazen drug smugglers or ruthless dealers. The recent study revealed that 89 percent of people arrested for cannabis offenses in Alabama from 2012 – 2016 were busted for simple possession.

Those arrests include Wesley Shelton, who was busted with $10 worth of marijuana. But since he couldn’t afford bail, he spent 15 months in jail. So the state ended up punishing itself by wasting approximately $21,000 to punish someone for $10 worth of weed.

Alabama continues to shoot itself in the pocketbook with harsh, outdated laws that create needless suffering for its residents, particularly for black people who are still living with the legacy of Jim Crow,” said Lisa Graybill, Deputy Legal Director for the SPLC. It’s past time to reform laws that perpetuate discrimination.”

Graybill is talking about people like Kiasha Hughes, whose dreams of becoming a medical assistant were derailed by a marijuana offense that prevented her from continuing her studies. Now she works in a chicken plant and struggles to make ends meet for her family, according to the report. And she’s just one of many aspiring Alabamans whose futures are being smothered by a wasteful and futile drug policy.

Alabama should follow the lead of other states that have realized marijuana prohibition is self-defeating and counterproductive,” Graybill said. We’re draining scarce resources and driving people further into poverty – and there’s no public safety benefit.”

In fact, enforcing cannabis prohibition arguably endangers public safety by tying up police resources. The study found that the demand for cannabis-related drug tests has created a significant backlog at the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences. The agency’s Forensic Biology/​DNA lab is now facing a backlog of 1,121 cases. And roughly half of those are crimes against persons’ (e.g. homicides, sexual assaults and robberies). So enforcing cannabis prohibition is helping more dangerous offenders avoid punishment.

That’s why Alabama Appleseed and the SPLC are calling on the state to end cannabis prohibition.

It’s time for Alabama to invest its resources on strategies and programs that will help keep our communities safe – investigating serious crimes and providing substance abuse and mental health programs,” Knaack said. Now in its fourth decade, the war on drugs has failed to eradicate or even diminish marijuana use,” Knaack said. In 2016 alone Alabama spent over $22 million on the enforcement of its marijuana possession laws. At the same time, the state agency tasked with analyzing forensic evidence in all criminal cases, including violent crimes, faced a crippling backlog.”

Alabama voters are ready for reform, according to a recent poll that found over 60 percent of Alabamans support legalizing cannabis for medical and/​or recreational use. Now all they need is a legislature that’s willing to make reform a reality. Unfortunately, sitting Republican Governor Kay Ivey refuses to even discuss legalization.

Until she breaks her silence, there’s little hope of changing Alabama’s laws. Meanwhile, the failure of prohibition speaks for itself.

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