While the twentieth day of the fourth month holds no special significance for anyone outside of the incense industry (for some reason, it always smells like something’s burning; maybe it’s just me), Birmingham, Ala., Mayor Randall Woodfin gave residents a reason to celebrate when he officially pardoned anyone convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession by the city over the last three decades.
On Tuesday, Woodfin announced a blanket pardon for anyone with a closed marijuana conviction in the Birmingham Municipal Courts between 1990 and 2020. The blanket pardon, issued in conjunction with the city’s Pardons for Progress initiative sent more than 15,000 possession cases up in smoke. In an exclusive interview with The Root, Woodfin explained that the move was a last-ditch effort to blunt the devastating effects of the war on drugs.
“We started Pardon’s for Progress in 2019,” explained the 2018 Root 100 honoree. “The program was intended to help people with marijuana convictions obtain driver’s licenses, jobs and other opportunities. But I was not pleased with the number of people participating.”
Progress for Pardons allowed anyone convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession to apply for a pardon and have the conviction sealed. After fewer than 20 people signed up for the project, many from outside the city, the mayor launched a campaign involving media appearances, town halls and a direct mail blitz to inform citizens about the initiative, to no avail. Undeterred, the mayor concluded that there was only one thing left for him to do.
“Instead of asking people to come to us for help, I decided to take it to the people,” said Woodfin. “So that’s what we did.”
Woodfin’s decree only affects those who have been convicted in the city’s municipal courts and does not affect open cases. However, the mayor’s office noted that citizens with open cases can still apply for a pardon through Pardons for Progress once the case has been adjudicated. Woodfin was also careful to note that, while the blanket pardon eliminates marijuana convictions, expunging a case from an individual’s criminal record requires an additional step that is only accessible through the State of Alabama.
Woodfin also explained that the mayor’s office is actively engaged with the police department on how law enforcement officers concerning marijuana offenses. “There are certain things we can’t do,” explained Woodfin. “But I am in conversation with the police chief about how our police interact with citizens and we’re continuing to flush that out.”
Alabama is one of fourteen states where possession of marijuana is illegal under state and federal law. Thirty-six states recognize the use of cannabis for medical purposes, along with the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Seventeen states have authorized recreational use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Black Alabamians are four times more likely to be arrested for possessing pot. Community leaders in Birmingham, America’s fifth-Blackest city, have long pushed to reduce the effects of the prohibition that disproportionately affects Black citizens. A bill to legalize medicinal marijuana is currently working its way through Alabama’s legislature, although lawmakers have repeatedly voted against similar measures, including a recent bill to expunge weed convictions after five years. In 2019, the county’s sheriff’s department experimented with a plan to “cite-and-release” people charged with marijuana possession, but the plan was quickly halted when it ran afoul of a state regulation that excludes municipal courts from fining people for a misdemeanor that involves the consumption of a controlled substance.
The Birmingham mayor hoped that other mayors would use their pardon powers in the same way, adding that the plan was not just about criminal justice reform. Eliminating marijuana convictions have economic and quality-of-life implications that reach beyond the court systems.
“It’s about jobs and using taxpayer funds effectively,” he told The Root. “This will free up resources and allow police officers to do more crime-solving, so it actually keeps people safer. No one should be held up by a single past mistake. No one should be denied job opportunities or freedoms due to missteps from the past.”
“They deserve a chance to be part of our workforce, to provide for their families and to achieve success on their own,” Woodfin added. “That new life starts rights here, today, with forgiveness and redemption.”
The mayor’s office did not respond to requests from local activists to “smoke one with ya’ boy.”