Easing marijuana laws in Atlanta easier said than done

Atlanta wants to join a growing number of U.S. cities that are lowering the penalties for small amounts of marijuana use.

But leaders learned last week that getting there won’t be easy.

The City Council sent legislation meant to lower fines and eliminate jail time for possession of an ounce or less of pot back to a committee last week after members had a host of questions. Chief among their concerns was whether there was buy-in from the Atlanta Police Department and city courts, two groups whose backing would be crucial to making such a plan work. Elected officials also fear that being too lenient would take away the deterrent of marijuana use.

“I don’t see this as being the antidote to that,” said Councilman Michael Julian Bond.

But as more cities and states move closer to acceptance of marijuana — once among the top illegal drug in the crosshairs of the nation’s “War on Drugs” — Atlanta is taking baby steps toward policy changes that some say is inevitable.

“I have patience,” said Councilman Kwanza Hall, who sponsored the legislation. “If it takes a little more work that’s fine. Anything worth having is worth fighting for.”

At stake, supporters and even opponents say, is a goal of reducing the disproportionate number of black men sent to jail because of pot possession.

Between 2014 and 2016, 92 percent of those arrested in Atlanta for possession were African American and 85 percent were male, according to the Racial Justice Action Center in East Point. An American Civil Liberties Union analysis of marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010 found blacks were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested nationally for possession of the drug than whites.

In Georgia, arrests for marijuana possession or sale have jumped from 8,314 in 1990 to more than 35,000 in 2013, according to Peachtree NORML, the metro Atlanta arm of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

In 2010, Georgia law enforcement officers arrested 389 out of every 100,000 citizens for marijuana, and African Americans accounted for 64 percent of those arrests, the group said.

The problem is supporters and opponents don’t agree on the right way to solve the issue.

Illegal in Georgia

Kevin Sabet, co-founder and president of anti-marijuana legalization group Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said lessening penalties to address the high incarceration of black Americans is a noble goal. But he said the marijuana industry has used the incarceration debate as a smoke screen to keep minority and poor communities hooked when in reality the real strategy should be to keep pot out the communities to end the crisis.

“We think this is not an issue of cultural or social justice,” said Sabet, whose organization was in Atlanta on Thursday as part of the National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit at the Westin Peachtree Plaza Hotel. “Folks love to make those analogies. This is an issue of public health.”

In Atlanta, Kevin Sabet, founder and CEO of Smart Approaches Marijuana or SAM, a national group that opposes marijuana legalization, presents some of the problems with legalizing marijuana. Bob Andres / bandres@AJC.COM

Even Mayor Kasim Reed seems conflicted — acknowledging the need to keep black men out of jail unnecessarily, but also calling pot a gateway drug.

But supporters of reducing the penalties said keeping the laws as they are is creating a generation of minorities who will carry a lifetime criminal record for a drug whose legality is gaining steam.

“Criminalization and jail is the real gateway drug,” said Xochitl Bervera, of the Racial Justice Action Center. “The vast number of marijuana users, like the vast number of smokers or drinkers, don’t go on to do harder drugs. But jail can and does have a spiral effect on those who are criminalized.”

Meanwhile a growing number of U.S. cities are lowering penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. In the past few years, cities such as Dallas, Kansas City, New Orleans and St. Louis have eliminated jail time for small amounts of possession or have reduced fines. Clarkston in DeKalb County reduced penalties in legislation similar to Atlanta’s in 2016.

Since Colorado and Washington voters approved recreational use of pot in 2012, six other states and Washington, D.C., have joined them, though the drug is still illegal in Georgia. Twenty states, including Georgia, and the nation’s capital permit the use of medical marijuana.

Sharon Ravert, executive director for Peachtree NORML, said the challenge for Atlanta will be getting leadership on the same page and education. The state may not be ready to legalize marijuana, but it should be doing what it can to change incarceration rates.

“This is more than a drug issue, it’s a moral issue,” she said.

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