Pubdate: Sun, 28 Jun 2009
Source: Birmingham News, The (AL)
Copyright: 2009 The Birmingham News
Author: Chris Norwood, Staff Writer


Although some states are openly debating the legalization of
marijuana, Alabama does not appear ready to take that step just yet.
Still, there are some advocates for legalization, such as former
gubernatorial candidate Loretta Nall. Brian Schoenhals In a sluggish
economy, as states are struggling to keep the books balanced, several
have been asked to discuss the legalization and regulation of
marijuana, both as a cost saver and as a source of tax revenue. Under
current law, a first time arrest for possession of marijuana for
personal use is a misdemeanor. A second or subsequent conviction is a
class C felony, punishable by one year and one day to 10 years in
prison. State law does not differentiate between distribution of
marijuana and distribution of other controlled substances.

2006 gubernatorial candidate Loretta Nall is one of the more
passionate and outspoken voices for reforming Alabama’s marijuana laws.

“Since prohibition of marijuana has never worked, I see nothing but
positives in legalizing, taxing and regulating the sale to adults. I
think the question that needs to be asked is, ‘What is one positive
thing that has come from the prohibition of marijuana,’” Nall wrote in
a prepared statement. “I can’t think of one. Outlawing it and locking
up its peaceful consumers in prison cells has not stopped other people
from using it, reduced the flow of it into this country, decreased
crime or kept it out of the hands of children…Drug dealers don’t ask
for ID, so any kid who knows where to get some can acquire it.”

Nall also sites border violence in Mexico as a factor against the
current practice, then outlines what she would consider the seven
biggest benefits of legalization.

First, it would significantly reduce prison overcrowding. According to
her figures, Nall says that some 30 percent of Alabama inmates are
serving time for non-violent drug offenses at a cost to taxpayers of
$117 million per year. The Department of Corrections does not
differentiate between those convicted of marijuana possession and
those convicted of other controlled substance crimes, however, so it
is difficult to say how many of these inmates are serving time
exclusively on marijuana charges, but she sites a study by The
Birmingham News estimating marijuana arrests constitute about half of
all drug arrests.

“We spend $13,000 per year to house a person in prison in Alabama for
smoking a joint, while we only spend a little over $8,000 per year to
send a child to school. We spend more to incarcerate than we do to

Secondly, she said, legalization would “enable us to use drug courts
and treatment resources for actual hard core drug addicts and law
enforcement resources for catching dangerous criminals who are a very
real threat to the public. Taxes from the sale of marijuana could even
be used to help pay for drug court and treatment. Alabama has a dismal
lack of treatment beds available and drug courts are clogged with pot
smokers who are then sent to treatment where they take up space that
could be occupied by someone addicted to meth or opiates, or they are
sent to occupy prison space that should really be occupied by a
violent criminal.”

Legalization would also make it more difficult for children to
acquire, while at the same time making it more widely available for
medicinal purposes for people suffering from cancer, HIV/AIDs and
other afflictions where marijuana has shown some potential benefit. It
would also take money away from violent drug cartels and create
agricultural jobs, she argues.

“We cannot afford to keep enforcing a law that has never and will
never meet its stated objective. Taxes raised from the legal sale of
marijuana could be used to fund worthy programs like education, health
care, treatment for real drug addicts and a whole host of other worthy
programs. Legalizing would allow the state to make money from
marijuana as opposed to insisting that it cost the taxpayers money.
We'd save all that we spend on incarceration, court costs and law
enforcement resources and make money on top of what was saved. Not to
mention that legalizing marijuana would reaffirm that we own our own
bodies and not the government,” she concluded.

Nall said she had posted items about legalization of marijuana and
hemp (a natural fiber derived from the same plant) on gubernatorial
candidate Artur Davis’s Web site, and while the items were popular
with users, the candidate himself has remained silent on the issue.

Jason Murray, commander of the Talladega County Drug and Violent Crime
Task Force, sees the issue very differently, pointing out that
marijuana remains the major gateway drug to more dangerous substances
such as cocaine and methamphetamine.

“In my personal opinion, if you want to live somewhere where marijuana
is legal, I would suggest you move to Colorado or California. As long
as I have been doing this, I could probably count on one hand the
number of meth or cocaine users who didn’t start with marijuana. We
don’t need to make it legal. The gateway theory has been proven, and
if we tried to regulate it, the problems would just be beginning.”

Murray points to Amsterdam, perhaps the most high profile jurisdiction
to legalize most controlled substances, as a cautionary tale.

“Amsterdam has more addicts living on the street than any other city
in Europe or the world. It is a massive draw on their society over

Murray also rejects the argument that marijuana actually acts as a
gateway drug because it is illegal.

“I don’t know how you could make that argument,” he said. “I don’t
know of any study or any set of statistics showing that legalizing
marijuana would (help prevent) any other kind of drug activity.”

He added, “I will say, though, that I do believe marijuana does have
some medicinal advantages, for cancer patients, for example. But we’re
a nation that sends people into space, put men on the moon. I’m sure
they could take the components of the drug that are beneficial and put
them into pill form. But what it comes down to is that this is
something that has been studied for 30 years. There is definite
clinical data out there that show that marijuana destroys brain cells,
that an A student that starts smoking marijuana regularly will drop at
least one letter grade. Keep in mind, this is not a law enforcement
perspective. These are scientific studies that were conducted by
people who are supposed to be a lot smarter than me.”

Talladega County District Attorney Steve Giddens said he was also
utterly opposed.

“I get asked about that from time to time, not just about marijuana
but about crack and methamphetamine as well,” Giddens said. “People
call my office, and people call law enforcement, and say they’ve got
dealers down the street, meth labs down the street, and they’re
scared. We go out, we make arrests, we get them off the street. If
these drugs were legalized, there would be nothing we could do. I am
totally opposed to that.”

When asked whether legalization might actually reduce street crime,
Giddens said it wouldn’t. “We ended prohibition of alcohol, but that
didn’t put the moonshiners out of business, did it?”

Talladega County Presiding Circuit Judge Julian King was also strongly

“Legalization of controlled substances is an issue for the legislative
branch of our government to decide, but I am personally and
professionally opposed to legalization of marijuana. I have seen first
hand in the court system the byproducts of that substance and other

St. Clair County District Attorney Richard Minor is also opposed to
legalization. “That’s really an issue for the legislature. My office
enforces the law. Right now, the legislature says marijuana is
illegal, so it’s illegal. But based on my experiences over the last 15
years, if I was a legislator and did have a vote, I would vote to
maintain the law as it is now. I’m sure there are a few out there, but
I have never met a meth or crack addict that didn’t say they smoked
marijuana first. Maybe legalization might eliminate that first step
for some people, but I don’t think so.”

During a PowerPoint presentation Minor frequently gives to groups
about methamphetamine is a drawing done by an elementary school age

“The children were told to draw a picture of a problem in their
family. This child drew a stick figure in front of a stove and labeled
it ‘Dad making meth.’ The next picture showed a stick figure chopping
up meth on a plate and then smoking it. The last picture shows the
stick figure with a cigarette and is labeled ‘Dad smokes pot.’”

He also pointed out that “Legalization is not just a topic of debate
in the legislature, it’s also a topic among prosecutors in some parts
of the country. In California, prosecutors have been told not to make
any marijuana cases, so there’s a political issue at work too.”
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