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Alabama Marijuana Legalization
Should Alabama follow Colorado’s lead on legalizing marijuana usage? (David Zalubowski/AP Photo)

By Reggie C. Pulliam, a resident of Gulf Shores who has worked on public policy and criminal justice reform in Washington, D.C.

As the state of Alabama and our elected officials stumble forward into our next fiscal year, we are once again hit with cries of budget cuts, tax hikes, and another movement of funds from our woeful education system into the general fund.

According to al.com, such budgetary solutions range from a lottery, which is a hidden tax on the poor and uneducated of our neighbors, to an additional tax on gas now that it’s cheap. The governor, in his State of the State address, proposed new prison initiatives in order to stem the maintenance costs of the prison budget, which is the second largest agency siphoning from the general fund, at a whopping $400 million.

But, as we look to spend more on prisons, we are also seeking to remove more than $180 million from our education fund, which could actually lead us to need to expand our penitentiaries. According to the Department of Corrections, the average inmate housed in Alabama has an eighth grade education.

I hope we can come together and search for greater solutions than we currently have proposed. Our nation was founded on states’ rights and their ability to experiment with policy, and I ask our leadership to look west for solutions to our education budgetary shortfall, as well as a solution to our prison overcrowding. 

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In 2012, Colorado had its voters elect to legalize cannabis for all people over the age of 21. Since then, the experiment has become a model for states looking to boost education funding and decrease prison populations. 

Colorado became the first state in the history of our nation to raise more money from taxes on marijuana than alcohol ($70 million vs $42 million) in 2014.  The vast majority of the new tax revenue has gone to education and substance abuse education and treatment facilities.  As a matter of fact, revenues are so high that Coloradoans will be voting in November whether to return some of their taxes to themselves or put the money towards infrastructure improvements.

There are also an additional 16,000 licensed marijuana employees in Colorado, some becoming business owners and entrepreneurs while others are retail and tourist-based. That local income is helping reduce the state’s unemployment to an 8-year low, and is allowing other businesses to grow. The average employee in the cannabis industry in Colorado makes $17/hr, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue. 

However, Alabama and Colorado are not alike. We have two different cultures, seeing as how marijuana youth usage is the lowest in the nation in our state at 5% while Colorado sits near the top at 10%. While the two approaches will have slightly different effects, the outcomes should be the same: positive.

I’d also not the second part of the solution: the decrease in our prison population.  While the most accurate information provided lists the Alabama prison population at nearly 32,000, it is estimated that 10% of the prisoners there are for drug-related, non-violent offenses.  1.4% of Alabama’s prisoners are there for marijuana only arrests, which comes out to about 450 prisoners.

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Factor that in with the estimated cost to house a prisoner for a day ($44.09), and you get a cost of $19,840.50 per day to house citizens whose crime it was to do something that is completely legal in four other states.

Fun fact: according to a recent study, Alabama spends a little more than $10,100 on average per student while it costs us over $16,000 to house an inmate annually. With a recidivism rate over 30%, those cost continue to rise, which is why our governor seeks to build bigger boxes in which to house our neighbors.

I am not advocating that legalization is a magic bullet that will instantly solve all of our manageable budgetary issues. I am, however, begging that we seek new approaches to solving age-old issues. It is said that the definition of insanity is to continue to try the same approach while expecting different results. Building larger centers of incarceration simply can no longer be considered a viable solution, and turning a blind eye to the economic and communal benefits of legalization of cannabis is to reject a positive economic experiment of one of our sister states.

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