Civil rights activists in the 1960s paid special attention to Mississippi, reasoning that if the back of segregation could be broken there it would soon collapse in the rest of the south. There were right. As one who hopes to see America’s insane marijuana prohibition abolished as soon as possible, I am optimistic that recent trends Arkansas law may point toward a similar nationwide awakening. Less than ten years ago second offense possession of pot—even a half-smoked roach—was an automatic felony! Fast forward to today and it takes four prior offenses—or possession of more than four ounces—to land a ganja user in felony waters. Medical marijuana is now legal in Arkansas and the first licensed growing facilities are already in operation. What’s more, a bill is currently pending in the state legislature that, if it passes, will decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, taking all possibility of jail off the table and capping the maximum punishment at a $200 fine. Pretty progressive for a supposedly backwards southern state that the rest of the country makes “Deliverance” jokes about (which, for anyone who cares, was both set and filmed in Georgia).
As a defense attorney, perhaps even more significant than the letter of the law are the changing attitudes of Arkansas prosecutors towards marijuana. Arkansas state’s attorney’s offices that would not have dreamed of it a decade ago are now drastically reducing plea offers in pot cases. While this is by no means true in all parts of the state, it is now commonplace to get the prosecution to place misdemeanor possession of marijuana “under advisement,” meaning that the offender pays a fine and sees her charges dropped completely if she avoids similar legal troubles for a year.
The most dramatic example of such prosecutorial leniency to cross my desk happened in a case I took last April. My client was driving from California to Florida when he was stopped along I 40 (an infamous “drug corridor” that law enforcement watches with a laser like intensity) and arrested when a drug dog alerted to his car, leading to the discovery of over 120 pounds (yikes!) of high-grade marijuana in his trunk. Given the amount of weed 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 a $15,000. Draconian to say the least. But this particular story had a happy ending. 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 guy was back home in California in six months 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.