In South Fulton, people who are found with less than an ounce of marijuana will be fined up to $150. Under state law, the punishment is a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail. Clarkston and Atlanta both fine people up to $75.
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Mayor Pro Tem Mark Baker, who proposed the measure, cited the disproportionate number of black people who are charged with possession as an impetus to make the change. In Atlanta, he said, 92 percent of people who are charged with possession are black.
The South Fulton mayor and all members of the council are black, and about 90 percent of the city’s 100,000 residents are black, according to the city. With possession arrests, people can have difficulty getting jobs and housing, due to their criminal records. Baker said the focus of the measure is criminal justice reform, and he wanted to “do something today so we can have the community most people want to have tomorrow.”
One person, Horace Copridge, spoke against the proposal, saying “things are going down” in the year-old city. But other residents hoped that it would pass. Brenda Jenkins, a South Fulton resident, said she isn’t a marijuana user and didn’t expect to be caught — though “when I left my mom’s house and went to college, I did smoke some joints,” she said — but was in favor of the measure.
“There are so many ways a little thing can impact a person’s life,” she said. Reducing the penalty is “just making the punishment fit the crime.”
Ebone Griffin, another resident, said marijuana usage helped her kick an opioid addiction after dealing with the pain from a gunshot wound.
“Reconsider the stereotype,” she urged. “Let’s have a heart; the world is changing.”
Ted Terry, the Clarkston mayor, told council members that the number of citations did not change notably after Clarkston decriminalized marijuana. Shouts of “free the plant” punctuated the discussion between council members, some of whom said they had mixed feelings about the measure.
Two who did, Catherine Rowell and Helen Zenobia Willis, voted against it. Rowell said she was in favor of making the punishment for possession a civil fine, but wanted it to be higher, to discourage usage. Willis said she was in support of medical marijuana, but thought decriminalizing it would increase drug use and addiction.
“When we have our youth unable to get jobs, what does that lead to?” she asked.
Willis said a survey of residents in her district showed that they were not in favor of the measure. But Carmalitha Gumbs, another councilwoman, said 75 percent of those who responded to her survey wanted marijuana to be decriminalized.
“I think we’re in a position to be a progressive city,” she said. “This will put us on the right side of history.”
The decision comes days before South Fulton’s police force is set to transition to the city, on Monday. In describing the impact of the decision, Baker said it would free up officers to focus on break-ins and other violent crime.
“It’s not by any means an endorsement of the use of marijuana at all,” Baker said. “Some people may feel it goes against the moral fabric, but the target is criminal justice reform.”
Arielle Kass covers Gwinnett County for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She started at the paper in 2010, and has covered business and local government beats around metro Atlanta. Arielle is a graduate of Emory University.