Mayor Randall Woodfin’s 4/20 announcement of blanket pardons for misdemeanor marijuana could wipe more than 15,000 convictions off the books, but city officials say it won’t change the way police and court officials handle future possession cases.
City of Birmingham spokesman Rick Journey said Birmingham police will continue to enforce state law. Possession of any amount of marijuana is illegal in Alabama. City prosecutors will still prosecute those cases, Journey said.
He also said the blanket pardon does not address future cases.
Presiding Judge Andra Sparks of Birmingham Municipal Court said most people arrested for marijuana possession enter diversion programs. After paying the fees and completing requirements, people in those diversion programs have the charges dropped so no conviction appears on their record anyway. He said few people arrested in the city and taken to municipal court end up with misdemeanor convictions for marijuana possession.
“We’ve been doing that for several years now,” Sparks said.
In 2019, Woodfin announced the launch of Pardons for Progress, a program designed to streamline the pardon process for people with marijuana misdemeanors, which can be barriers to employment. The program started slowly and only granted nine pardons in its first 18 months.
On Tuesday, Woodfin announced a blanket pardon of all marijuana misdemeanors between 1990 and 2020 – becoming the first city in Alabama to forgive possession and paraphernalia convictions.
State law gives Alabama mayors the authority to remit fines and commute sentences in municipal court, but Woodfin has no authority to change state marijuana laws or how they are enforced.
An effort by Jefferson County Sheriff Mark Pettway to create and issue a Big Ticket instead of making arrests for marijuana possession and other misdemeanor offenses couldn’t be implemented due to restrictions in state law.
But mayors around Alabama say they are watching Birmingham.
Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson said his office has consulted with the Alabama Attorney General’s Office about issuing pardons and how that might affect surrounding jurisdictions. He said he has supported efforts to create alternatives to arrest for marijuana offenses but has run into obstacles in state law.
“We have continued to seek alternatives to arrest in communications with our partners in law enforcement, and through legislative reform at the state level,” Stimpson said.
People in Tuscaloosa can apply for a pardon from the Office of the City Attorney, according to city spokesman Richard Rush. He said the office receives relatively few pardon applications.
“The city has had very preliminary discussions, and at this time believes pardons deserve to be considered on an individual basis and looks forward to continuing to review each application that is submitted,” Rush said.
None of the communities around Birmingham have announced plans to pardon misdemeanor marijuana offenders. Leaders of the Alabama Democratic Party announced Tuesday their support for legal medical and recreational marijuana. The state senate passed a bill that would legalize medical marijuana and the legislature approved another that would allow marijuana misdemeanors to be expunged.
Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed said he supports Woodfin’s efforts and is looking for ways to improve criminal justice in his city.
“I look forward to finding ways we really can balance the scales of fairness and justice in our current system,” Reed said. “I believe that things like Birmingham has done are part of that process. I commend Mayor Woodfin for moving forward on that and removing the obstacles of keeping hard working Alabamians from being able to improve their jobs and careers and personal status because a record that does not involve a serious or a violent offense.”
Officials in Huntsville did not comment for this story.
Woodfin has said the pardons are intended to provide a fresh start for many who may be struggling to find job and career opportunities.
“Millions of people, disproportionately from Black and Brown communities, have had their lives upended due to marijuana charges,” Woodfin wrote on Facebook. “These charges have led to arrests, convictions and even jail time, as well as criminal records that make it harder to find housing, receive a good paying job to earn a living, or receive financial assistance to earn a college education.”
The pardons will not remove an arrest from a person’s record, only the convictions. No action is required to receive a pardon. The pardons apply to closed cases between 1990 and 2020, but no fines or court fees will be refunded.
San Francisco, Los Angeles and Illinois have issued blanket pardons for marijuana convictions, but Birmingham is the first city in the South to make such a move. Virginia is the only state in the region to legalize recreational marijuana use.
Woodfin said he received supportive messages from across the country after the announcement.
“Thank you to everyone in Birmingham, the state, and around the country who have expressed your support for this initiative,” he wrote on Twitter.
Woodfin recently posted a petition calling on state leaders to decriminalize marijuana possession. More than 5,500 people have signed it.
“Put simply these prohibitions do not make our city safer and only create barriers for many in our community to earn a good and honest living,” Woodfin wrote. “One small mistake should not define an entire lifetime.”
Additional reporting by John Sharp and Paul Gattis