Hope for Change: The Evolution of Arkansas Law and Attitudes towards Marijuana

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s saw activists zero in on Mississippi as a focal point in the fight against segregation. The reasoning was simple: if the state could be desegregated, the rest of the South would soon follow suit. As it turns out, they were right. Similarly, as a criminal defense attorney and advocate for ending marijuana prohibition, I believe recent changes in Arkansas law may foreshadow a similar breakthrough across the nation.

Just a decade ago, possession of any amount of marijuana in Arkansas was a felony. But today, a person would have to have four prior offenses or be found in possession of more than four ounces to face a felony charge. Medical marijuana is now legal in the state, and the first licensed growing facilities have already begun operations. Furthermore, a bill is currently pending in the state legislature that, if passed, would decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, making the maximum punishment a $200 fine and eliminating the possibility of jail time. This progress is especially noteworthy for a state that is often considered "backwards" by the rest of the country.

But as a defense attorney, I am particularly heartened by the shifting attitudes of Arkansas prosecutors towards marijuana. Prosecutors' offices that would not have considered leniency a decade ago are now drastically reducing plea offers in marijuana possession cases. It is now common for prosecutors to place misdemeanor possession of marijuana "under advisement," meaning that the offender pays a fine and sees their charges dropped completely if they avoid legal troubles for a year.

I recently had a case that exemplifies this change in attitudes. My client was arrested while driving from California to Florida with over 120 pounds of high-grade marijuana in his trunk. Given the amount of marijuana involved, he was charged with a Class A Felony, carrying a sentence of 6 to 30 years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000. However, after a lengthy negotiation and motions challenging the legality of the search and the credentials of the police dog, the prosecutor agreed to a resolution where my client was back home in California in six months and didn't even have to pay any fines!  I shudder to think what his fate might have been twenty years ago.  

So, yes.  Things are getting better, even in my conservative flyover state.  I sincerely hope it proves a portent for the rest of America.