Marijuana decriminalization push rolls into another metro Atlanta city

It's been about three years since one DeKalb County city made history with the most liberal marijuana enforcement policy in the state. Since then, several more municipalities have followed suit, eliminating the possibility of jail time and severely reducing the fine for possessing one ounce or less of weed.

Months after the state Legislature passed a bill legalizing medical marijuana sales, the push toward recreational decriminalization on the local level is continuing; the city of Chamblee is currently considering a measure that echoes the rules in Clarkston, which passed its marijuana ordinance in July 2016.

“Take away the criminal aspect. Take away the pipeline of sending people to jail,” said Brian Mock, the Chamblee City Councilman who introduced the ordinance.

The city currently defaults to state law for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, which is classified as a misdemeanor. Punishment can include one year of jail time or a $1,000 fine. An ounce of marijuana can make up to about 40 joints, according to online resources.


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Chamblee’s proposal would treat the offense more like a traffic ticket that is handled in municipal court, with no jail time and a fine of either $75 or $150. Officials are still working out the details of the ordinance and plan to continue discussing it next month.

It would be the 11th local jurisdiction in Georgia with the reduced penalty, following large cities like Atlanta, Savannah and Macon-Bibb County, as well as smaller ones like South Fulton and Forest Park.

“There is a movement happening all over the state,” Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry said. He hopes legislators will consider changing the state law, making it less of a crime to have a small amount of weed.

When Clarkston first passed its decriminalization ordinance, there were worries among some critics that “chaos was gonna erupt and potheads were going to be running amok in Clarkston,” Terry said. “Those fears of becoming a drug haven did not bear out.”

Throughout the last year — from July 2018 to June 2019 — Clarkston police issued possession of marijuana citations to 37 people, according to the city.

Over that same time period in Chamblee, 103 people were arrested and charged with possessing marijuana, the police department said. Some of those people faced additional charges.

Clarkston’s population is about 12,700, and Chamblee’s is nearly 30,000.

Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry is a supporter of decriminalizing marijuana on the state level.

Credit: Branden Camp

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Credit: Branden Camp

Municipal rules can’t impact every case involving weed. If someone is charged with marijuana possession on top of a more serious criminal offense, the case has to go to state court and the defendant would be subject to the harsher penalties.

Mock said he proposed the measure because he saw it work in Clarkston and Atlanta, and he knows marijuana use is common.

“I know our high schools are loaded with it,” said Mock, who often hosts foreign exchange students during the school year. “It’s everywhere.”

Studies have shown that black and Latino people are more like than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, though usage is about the same across racial groups, experts say.

“We have to create policies and change the systems that are clearly discriminatory against one demographic,” Terry said.

Mock expects the City Council will pass the ordinance, though there was some debate at a July 11 work session over the proposed fine. Several council members pointed out that Chamblee’s current fine for underage alcohol possession is $350, and $220 for violating the alcohol open-container law.

“I definitely have a problem with the legal product being a $220 fine and the illegal product being $150 or $75,” Councilman John Mesa said.

On the state level, lawmakers passed a bill earlier this year that makes it legal to grow and sell medical marijuana in Georgia, creating a small marijuana industry in the state, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

It has been legal since 2015 for patients in Georgia to possess cannabis oil for medical purposes, but recreational use remains outlawed.

More than half of all Georgians support legalizing of recreational marijuana, according to Peachtree NORML, the state chapter of a national pro-cannabis group.

"We advocate for the freedom of adults in the United States to make their own decisions about cannabis," Tom McCain, executive director for the Georgia chapter, previously told the AJC. "It's not the dangerous thing that 'Reefer Madness' and all of the hype makes it out to be."

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