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Marijuana would remain illegal in Alabama despite federal change: ‘Even more confusion’

If the federal government moves forward with a plan to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous drug, some worry that it will cause further confusion about what’s legal and not legal in states like Alabama.

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While nearly half of states now allow recreational marijuana, Alabama is not one of them. And while Alabama legalized medical marijuana in 2021, efforts to get the program up and running have been bogged down in court.

“We’ve introduced a lot of confusion into what the law is at this point,” said Leah Nelson, research director at Alabama Appleseed. “And I actually think in some ways... it’s possible that’s going to result in even more confusion. For reasons of fairness and clarity, it’s really important for Alabama to take a hard look at what purpose it serves to make possession of marijuana a felony.”

The federal policy change would not change state law, said Tim Douthit, chief trial attorney at the Madison County District Attorney’s office.

“It’ll still be illegal at the same levels it always was in Alabama under state law,” Douthit told

Nelson said she’s seen confusion over the issue play out before, as more states legalized medical marijuana, seeing people arrested in Alabama for possession of medical marijuana they got legally with a prescription from another state. She pointed to the case of Sean Worsley, a Purple Heart decorated Iraq War veteran who brought his medical marijuana from Arizona to Alabama and found himself in prison. After his case drew national scrutiny, Worsley was released on parole after spending over eight months in prison for felony possession.

“You read a headline that medical marijuana is now legal in Alabama or because you got a prescription from another state and it was mailed here or because you got a prescription in another state and you drove from there to here with your medicine,” Nelson said. “I know people who have been charged with and convicted of felonies for all of those things.”

Nelson and advocates from the Southern Poverty Law Center said they hope lawmakers will decriminalize marijuana so that people don’t face such harsh consequences.

Decriminalization is not the same as legalization. It changes the punishment from a criminal offense with the potential for jail time to a civil offense and a small fine.

“It’s time to decriminalize marijuana,” said Aiden Cotter, senior policy counsel at the SPLC. “By leaving it in the Controlled Substances Act, we’re still leading to criminal enforcement where there are large racial disparities. In Alabama, this is quite pronounced where Black people are about four times as likely to be arrested than white people for marijuana offenses.”

But Nelson said she doubts Alabama will decriminalize marijuana anytime soon.

“There’s certainly a perennial ball that comes out to decriminalize marijuana, at least possession of a certain amount or under certain circumstances. But I think any momentum with that has really stalled out with this nonsense that we’re seeing around bringing medical cannabis to market,” Nelson said.

Under Alabama law, marijuana possession can be enforced as either a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on whether police think the amount is for ‘personal use.’ There is no listed amount under Alabama state law to determine what qualifies as personal use.

The sale of any amount of marijuana is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. If the sale is to a minor, the felony can see a conviction of up to 99 years in prison.

Certain cities in Alabama, however, namely Bimingham and Tuscaloosa, have made low-level marijuana arrests a simple ticketed offense. Mobile announced last month that they were considering a similar move.

Under federal law, marijuana is currently a schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, meaning it has “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Other drugs in this classification include heroin, LSD and quaaludes.

The Federal Drug Administration first recommended a move to Schedule III last year, saying “evidence also exists showing that the vast majority of individuals who use marijuana are doing so in a manner that does not lead to dangerous outcomes to themselves or others.”

Last month, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency issued a proposal to reclassify the drug, recognizing that marijuana has less potential for abuse than other Schedule I drugs.

The move to reclassify marijuana on the federal level still needs to be reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget, undergo a public comment period and be reviewed by an administrative judge before it can be adopted.

The move would likely give dispensaries and other marijuana businesses tax breaks they are not yet entitled to because it’s considered a harmful drug under the law. But it would not have any impact on individuals or otherwise legalize or decriminalize the drug.

“Policymakers need to be mindful of regulatory confusion. We talk a lot about wanting to cut red tape and make sure that regulations are clear for businesses and we should be doing the same for individuals,” Nelson told


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