MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WIAT) — Alabama became the 36th state to legalize medical marijuana in 2021, but it’s taken some time to roll out the program.

“There’s a lot of good that can come from this, in having a safe, secure, high-quality medication for folks instead of sending them out on the streets to operate in the black market,” Alabama Medical Cannabis Commission Director John McMillan said.

McMillan said the commission is on pace to start accepting applications for dispensary licenses by September, with regulations for the program to be made public this summer.

“From there, it’s a three-and-a-half, four-month process of advertising, hearings and things that go into the, I call it, the state’s clumsiness to get things done,” he said.

McMillan expects patients could get a cannabis card by spring 2023. Meanwhile, others are taking aim at the state’s current marijuana laws.

“It’s long past time for Alabama to decriminalize marijuana,” said Leah Nelson, research director of Alabama Appleseed.

Currently, possessing marijuana for personal use is a misdemeanor crime with a fine of up to $6,000 and a year in jail. A bill in the Alabama Legislature would remove the threat of jail time for having less than 2 ounces, and decrease the fine to no more than $250.

“We’re talking about an issue of racial justice and racial equity,” said Rep. Neil Rafferty, D-Birmingham.

Rafferty said decriminalizing marijuana is needed as Alabama’s prisons fill up, and that the state’s Black residents are disproportionately arrested for possession.

“The disparity for African Americans being arrested for simple marijuana possession when compared with whites, despite both groups using marijuana at roughly the same rate, we’re talking four times more likely if you are Black,” Rafferty said.

Rafferty said he plans to bring a House version of that bill in the remaining weeks of the session.

The Senate bill decriminalizing marijuana passed through a committee in February, but has yet to make it to the floor for a vote.