Atlanta, the heart of the ninth most populous metropolitan area in the U.S., is on the verge of decriminalizing marijuana possession under an ounce, pending the mayor’s signature.
On Monday night, the Atlanta City Council choose to unanimously condemn the current state of marijuana policy in their jurisdiction with a vote that would make less than an ounce of marijuana punishable only by a small civil fine. Currently, those caught with less than an ounce are subject to the possibility of a draconian one-year prison term and a $1,000 fine. If you’re caught growing any small amount of marijuana you don’t get the fine, but the prison sentence could bump up to 10 years. The ordinance still has to be reviewed by the mayor, which is where it gets a little fun.
Following Monday’s two-hour debate, on Tuesday, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed tweeted he was looking forward to reviewing the ordinance and signing it. The mayor also thanked council members Keisha Bottoms and Kwanza Hall. Hall will also be running against Reed in the upcoming Atlanta mayoral race, but Reed threw shade on everyone running against him earlier this summer in a fantastic radio interview where he declared “Nobody running for mayor could beat me.” Either way, he has a week to decide if he will sign the ordinance into law, and it generally looks like it’s trending that way.
Also in the ordinance, the Municipal Court of the City of Atlanta is granted jurisdiction to try and dispose of cases where a person is charged with the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana if the offense occurred within the city’s incorporated limits. It also stated the city would be keeping the suggested $75 dollar fine.
Atlanta’s police chief, Erica Shields, was quick to remind everyone that pot is still illegal.
“In the weeks leading up to this, there has been all this emphasis on decriminalization and legalization, and that is not what the ordinance is,” she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The ordinance is not written requiring anything different of law enforcement. The ordinance strictly deals with the city courts and municipal courts and their fining process.”
Shields was also concerned that the messaging was getting out there correctly.
According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the bill had been stalled in committee since May. In a statement, the DPA explained that the tide was turned during a Public Safety and Legal Affairs Committee meeting on Sept. 26.
“It was brought to light that in Atlanta, the overwhelming number of arrests for marijuana are African Americans (92 percent), even though studies have determined usage is at similar levels across racial demographics.”
Once everyone realized just how racist Atlanta’s pot laws and enforcement were, the committee quickly sent it off to the full city council with a favorable recommendation.
The Chairman of the Public Safety and Legal Affairs Committee Andre Dickens told the room he supported the ordinance and said, “It is unfortunate, that although marijuana use is equal amongst all racial lines, more than 90 percent of all marijuana charges that require jail time are disproportionately given to African Americans. I support the valuable use of our police officers to focus on more serious crimes that have an immediate effect on our citizens and communities.”
Advocates are excited to see the progress in the South, which has traditionally been a tough nut to crack for marijuana reform, with the exception of decriminalization in Mississippi and diversion programs in other states, which aren’t a real fix to solve the problem of racial profiling in enforcement.
“The city council sent a strong message that we need to end these wasteful and discriminatory arrests,” said Michelle Wright, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance, in the statement. “This bill is an important step forward, but now it’s up to the mayor to sign it and the police to implement it correctly and consistently.”
We asked Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project if the progress seen in Atlanta would splinter out through the rest of the South.
“I’m not sure that this represents some kind of turning point, but it is definitely a sign of progress. Trends in decriminalization laws are somewhat difficult to analyze,” Fox responded. “On the one hand, they certainly are an improvement from criminal prohibition and tend to be precursors to larger reforms, such as in Colorado and D.C., but on the other hand, sometimes they make residents and lawmakers complacent (the old ‘it’s already decriminalized, we don’t want to go further’ argument). Also, while local laws are great, they don’t prevent local police from enforcing state law.”
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