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November 11, 1997

Reefer Madness:

Real or Imaginary in South Alabama?

by Stephen McClurg

Has "reefer madness" hit southern Alabama? According to Eric Schlosser of the Atlantic Monthly, "reefer madness" and the accompanying "war on drugs" have not only gripped southern Alabama but the entire United States. He wrote in the April, 1997 issue of Atlantic Monthly: "In an era when the fear of violence pervades the United States, small-time pot dealers are being given life sentences while violent offenders are being released early, only to commit more violent crimes." Schlosser cites the fact that an all-time United States record for marijuana-related arrests of 600,000 was reached in 1995. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Report for 1996 reported 642,000 marijuana-related arrests, another record-breaker. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), this figure represents an 80 percent increase since 1990.

Schlosser also refers to a case in Decatur, Alabama, in which Douglas Lamar Gray, a Vietnam veteran with an artificial leg, bought a pound of marijuana from an informer and was fined $25,000, sentenced to life without parole, and put in the maximum security penitentiary in Springville, Alabama. Gray had been convicted of "a number of petty crimes" but none had warranted a prison sentence, and he had not been in trouble for thirteen years prior to his marijuana arrest.

The Birmingham Post-Herald ran an article this year on a hemp-produce sale and bust in Hoover, Alabama, in which Angela Guilford and her husband Jeff Russell were charged with trafficking in marijuana because they sold hemp items. A Hoover police officer had gone into their store and purchased a one-pound bag of hemp seeds, allowing the police to get a search warrant. Hemp seeds are sterilized by roasting and are used for birdseed sold under many brands, some of which can be found in Wal-Mart. Federal law does not allow the growing of marijuana for its hemp, but it does allow hemp to be used in industrial products. However, according to Alabama state law, any of the plant is considered marijuana under the genus cannabis.

So how does this reflect the picture in southern Alabama? According to Mobile Director of Public Safety Richard Cashdollar, there were 180 felony and 594 misdemeanor arrests in Mobile in 1996 related to marijuana. In Mobile County, there were 283 marijuana arrests for the same year, according to a report published by the Sheriff's Office (the report did not break down the arrests into categories of felony or misdemeanor). In Baldwin County, where the 1993 census showed a population of 110,815 compared to a population of 394,071 in Mobile County, the figures provided by the Sheriff's Office are 137 felonies and 263 misdemeanor marijuana arrests in 1996. Lt. Jones of the Vice Division said the number of marijuana arrests was probably higher, since the county data do not include arrests made by individual municipalities in Baldwin County. In 1994, there were 6,417 marijuana possession arrests in Alabama, which represent 55 percent of all drug arrests -- cocaine arrests accounted for 31 percent.

When asked for insight into the Schlosser Atlantic Monthly article in Mobile County, John Furman, Assistant District Attorney, said he felt that the stories were very sensationalized. "Even though marijuana decriminalization has become a public issue with many people, including doctors and lawyers in favor of it, the fact remains that it is illegal and will be treated so until there is a change in the law," he said.

Would Douglas Lamar Gray have met the same fate in Mobile? Furman remarked that "Under Alabama's habitual offender law, the 'petty crimes' he committed would have had to have been at least three felonies for Gray to have been given a sentence of life without parole. So yes, a habitual felon caught in a sting operation would likely get the same sentence."

Mr. Furman also stressed that sentencing will vary with jurisdictions and judges, but that Alabama legislators had distinguished marijuana from other drugs. Marijuana is the only drug for which first offenses for personal use are only misdemeanors. This allows the judges to deal with more violent offenders and the crack-cocaine epidemic in Mobile County. Furman stated, "Roughly 75 percent of the crimes such as burglary and assault in the county are in some way related to crack cocaine."

Furman also said judges in the area have to deal with the fact that Alabama's prisons are overcrowded with violent offenders. Marijuana has not become the crime-related "epidemic" that crack cocaine has become in Mobile County and the judges realizes this, Furman added.

In reference to the hemp situation in Hoover, Mobile District Attorney John Tyson was quoted by the Mobile Register stating that no hemp case would be prosecuted in Mobile County because hemp does not contain THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

The Harbinger, Mobile, AL