High hopes for Clarkston’s marijuana ordinance

The Clarkston City Council has voted unanimously to approve the most liberal marijuana ordinance in the state, reducing fine from up to $1,000 to $75 for possessing less than an ounce, and eliminating the possibility of jail time for breaking municipal law.

“We just made history,” whispered Sharon Ravert, a Dahlonega resident and advocate for marijuana legalization, when she saw the council’s seven hands raised in unison on Tuesday.

Mayor Ted Terry has argued that drug law enforcement "disproportionately affects lower income communities and communities of color." As the state's hotbed for refugee resettlement, Clarkston is one of the most diverse cities in the state. According to census statistics, the city of 12,000 is nearly 60 percent black and 53.5 percent foreign born.

“We’re not saying it’s legalized,” Terry said, “but we’re also saying we don’t want to ruin someone’s life or drain their bank account for what could be considered a simple mistake.”

But, despite Clarkston’s vote, it’s up to the discretion of law enforcement officers whether a person faces charges of violating the city ordinance or state law. When officers come across someone in possession of less than an ounce of pot, they can treat it either way.

While Tuesday’s vote reduces the penalty for a city violation, a person charged with a state offense could face higher fines and jail time. According to state law, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Gov. Nathan Deal has repeatedly said that drug enforcement laws should be left to Congress. A similar effort to decriminalize marijuana in Athens failed last year when the city attorney concluded that state law trumped municipal. codes.

“There’s a food chain of ordinances, and municipal codes are at the very bottom,” said Chuck Spahos, the executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia.

He thinks that Clarkston’s ordinance could lull citizens into a false sense of security. “From a legal standpoint, the municipality can’t prevent someone from being charged in a state or superior court.”

Clarkson Police Chief Christine Hudson had no objection to the vote. Even before council’s decision, she said, it was unlikely that violators would go to state court for mere possession of pot. Clarkston’s municipal judge rarely sentence someone to jail time for less than an ounce of marijuana, she added.

“Really and truthfully, nothing is changing for us,” Hudson said.

Terry, also a vice chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, has argued that the war on drugs has failed and that elected officials need to use “use evidence-based policies to make our communities safer and fight drug abuse.”

For Ravert, the necessity of changing marijuana laws became apparent in 2006 after her daughter was arrested for a gram and a half of the drug in Lumpkin County. It’s a charge, she said, that could have ruined the 19 year old’s life. Ravert since has become the executive director of Peachtree NORML, the Georgia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and travels the country lobbying for change.

Councilman Mario Williams, the chair of the public safety and legal committee, acknowledged that full decriminalization of marijuana isn’t possible under state law, but said the council is working within its legal authority by dramatically decreasing the fine.

The council hopes this philosophy will have a ripple effect on local governments throughout the state.

“We did a lot of fact finding on this issue, and we decided that the starting point is that, for every city in Georgia, those cities have the ability to regulate in the area of possession of one ounce or less of marijuana,” Williams said. The council hopes this philosophy will have a ripple effect on local governments throughout the state.