Marijuana has become a complicated legal issue in recent years. It is subject to a patchwork of regulations across different states, which all vary greatly in the severity of punishment for the possession or trafficking of marijuana. Federal law prohibits all uses of marijuana, but the enforcement of federal laws has changed substantially with the change in presidential administrations.
With all of these widely different laws, and uneven application of these laws, it can be difficult to know what to expect when one is charged with a marijuana offense. It is important for defendants to understand that not all marijuana cases in the Alabama courts will automatically result in a guilty verdict.
How Alabama Law Classifies Marijuana Offenses
Prison sentences in Alabama are determined, in part, by the classification of the offense to which the defendant has pleaded guilty (or been found guilty). Section 13A-12-214 of the Code of Alabama classifies the possession of marijuana for personal use as a Class A misdemeanor. This is punishable by a jail term of up to one year and a fine of up to $6,000. This does not mean that a jail term will be ordered in every misdemeanor possession case.
If, however, the defendant has been previously convicted of marijuana possession, the offense is a Class C felony. Possession of marijuana for other than personal use is a Class D felony. These designations are afforded under Section 13A-12-213. Class C felonies are punishable by a sentence of one to ten years in prison, while Class D felonies are punishable by between one and five years in prison.
But how are these sentencing ranges actually carried out in Alabama marijuana cases? Alabama.com reports that the number of felony marijuana convictions across the state has remained fairly steady in recent years. However, between 2009 and 2016, there was a 69 percent drop in the number of inmates being held in Alabama prisons on charges of marijuana possession. This is attributed to sentencing reforms in recent years. One frustrated District Attorney even commented that it is "hard to get someone to prison on a sale."
How An Attorney Can Help Defendants Mitigate - Or Avoid - Marijuana Sentences
Some marijuana cases result in prison or jail sentences and others do not. The category a particular case falls under will largely depend upon what happens during plea negotiations with a prosecutor. In some cases, a prosecutor may agree to let the defendant plead guilty to less serious charges (which are eligible for fines or limited jail time) in lieu of taking the case to trial. This is particularly common when the prosecutor’s evidence is weak, or subject to evidentiary objections used by a defense attorney in order to keep a jury from seeing the evidence at all.
In other cases, a defense attorney may counsel a defendant to plead guilty, with the knowledge that a sentence can be effectively reduced during the sentencing phase of the case. In cases with significant mitigating factors (such as a first-time offense, family or community support, etc.) an attorney may be able to convince a judge to order a shorter sentence, or permit the defendant to enter a diversion program, which saves the defendant more serious penalties.
Defendants who face marijuana charges without the guidance of a Birmingham criminal defense attorney often face longer jail or prison terms, harsher fines, and other penalties. With experienced guidance, defendants will be better able to protect their rights and their future.