October 1, 2019 Atlanta: Board member Kelly Hammock sets out merchandise including leaf patches during a monthly meeting of NORML Peachtree, a state group advocating normalization of marijuana at Manuel’s Tavern on Tuesday, October, 1, 2019, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Should Georgia legalize it? Lower penalties for pot a growing movement

A shot glass emblazoned with a marijuana leaf is up for sale. Jackpot prizes include pure hemp rolling paper. Nearby, groups of people enjoy drinks and dinner while chatting about why weed should be decriminalized and legalized in Georgia.

Thaddeus Willis, a Gwinnett County resident and Air Force veteran, has heard about the push to lessen the penalty for possessing small amounts of weed in Georgia.

“That’s the first step,” said Willis, enjoying chicken Parmesan and a soda at the monthly meeting for Peachtree NORML, a pro-marijuana advocacy group. Eventually, he said, “It needs to be made legal here.”

While many would say there’s no chance of that happening any time soon, new laws signal attitudes are changing in metro Atlanta and around the state. What’s less clear is how quickly more widespread changes could come.

Since 2016, 12 cities or counties in Georgia have passed local laws reducing the penalty for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. Almost 1.2 million Georgians, about 11% of the state population, now live in a place where, in most cases, they won’t be jailed if found with less than an ounce of pot.

Thaddeus Willis, 66, of Grayson, an Air Force veteran with PTSD, supports the legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes. He’s a regular attendee at the monthly meetings for Peachtree NORML at Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Broadly, marijuana decriminalization laws eliminate or reduce the legal penalties for possessing the drug. Under the current state law, punishment could be up to one year in jail or a $1,000 fine. Though possession of a small amount remains a misdemeanor crime in Georgia, individual cities and counties are able to partially decriminalize the offense by setting their own penalties.

The result? A scattered network of differing local ordinances that some say creates disparity and confusion. In Chamblee — the latest city to decriminalize weed — you can get a citation and $75 fine for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. Across Clairmont Road in neighboring Brookhaven, you could hypothetically get up to a year in jail for toking up.

“It’s not a good way to be doing the laws in Georgia, quite frankly,” said state Sen. Harold Jones, D-Augusta, who derided the “hodge podge system, with all these different counties doing different things.”

Peachtree NORML board member Kelley Hammock (left) and deputy director Dean Sines wear appropriate head gear during their October meeting. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

That discrepancy has led Jones and other advocates to call for a statewide change in the law, eliminating the possibility of jail time across Georgia for having small amounts of marijuana. Though it faces strong opposition in the General Assembly, the idea has support from some Democrats and Republicans alike, who view decriminalization as a way to send fewer people to jail and spend less money on low-level arrests.

Supporters are expected to ask legislative leadership to consider the proposal during the session starting in January, while stakeholders on both sides of the issue question: Is it high time for Georgia to follow in the footsteps of 26 other states and decriminalize — or even legalize — marijuana?

A broken system?

For proponents of marijuana decriminalization and legalization, the issue is central to criminal justice reform efforts.

Advocates like Maxwell Ruppersburg argue that Georgians shouldn’t have a misdemeanor on their criminal record simply for possessing a little weed. Stricter punishments, they say, put more people in jail and can affect their employment and housing options later down the road.

“You’re looking at people being arrested and incarcerated for personal use of a substance that does not destroy their lives and doesn’t destroy their communities,” said Ruppersburg, the executive director of the group ReformGeorgia, which lobbies for criminal justice reform in the state.

More than 23,700 people were arrested in Georgia in 2016 for possessing marijuana, according to a University of Michigan analysis of the most recent available data from the FBI. That’s a drop from the number of possession arrests in Georgia in 2010, which was about 28,000. The decline came even as the state’s population grew by nearly 600,000 over those same six years, according to U.S. Census estimates.

Experts say marijuana usage is equal across racial groups, but arrests disproportionately affect people of color.  FILE
Photo: File photo

Georgia’s current laws also disproportionately affect communities of color, Ruppersburg said. Experts believe marijuana usage is equal across racial groups. But of those arrested in 2016, nearly 64% were black, meaning black people in Georgia were arrested for marijuana possession at more than three times the rate as white people, the data shows.

For many of the cities that have decriminalized marijuana possession, improving the criminal justice system was the fundamental motivation. The lead sponsor of the measure in Chamblee, Councilman Brian Mock, said he wanted to “take away the pipeline of sending people to jail.”

Since the lighter penalties have taken effect in the 12 cities, some leaders in those communities say they are arresting fewer people for marijuana use and it has had no impact on the quality of life for other residents.

» RELATED: Marijuana decriminalization push rolls into another metro Atlanta city

“Nothing’s really changed. We haven’t become a drug haven,” said Ted Terry, the mayor of Clarkston, which was the first city in the state to pass a penalty reduction measure. “The goodwill that was created among a certain demographic of our residents has greatly improved in terms of relationships with police.”

The overall impact on the cities’ budgets is still unclear. In Clarkston, for example, officials said the municipal judge would rarely sentence someone to jail time for pot possession, even before the city passed its ordinance.

Municipal rules also can’t impact every case involving weed; officers can still choose to arrest someone and charge them under the state law. And if a suspect 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.

» FROM 2016: Low fines for marijuana in Clarkston stop short of legalization

For 25-year-old Nick Padgett, a simple possession arrest about five years ago in Richmond County impacted his ability to get a job, he said.

“As soon as anybody sees any sort of possession charge, especially here in Georgia, it’s automatically, ‘Oh you’re a junkie,’” the Augusta resident said.

He received two years of probation as a punishment, he said. There’s a chance he might have only received a $150 citation if he were arrested today, since Augusta-Richmond County passed a decriminalization measure in August.

“It’s caused huge, massive speed bumps for me,” he said. 

At NORML’s monthly meeting, Willis, 66, said he would like to use marijuana to help treat the lingering PTSD he has from 20 years in the Air Force. The only times he’s been able to use the drug, he said, was during his visits to Colorado and Nevada, two of the states that have legalized pot for recreational use.

“Your zip code should not dictate the type of medicine you’re able to get,” he said. “I’d hate to be caught in the street for buying from someone and end up in jail.”

Burning issue at the Capitol

Proponents say Georgia would benefit from a statewide law that lowers the penalty for pot possession, but it’s unclear whether the state has the political will to do so in the near future.

“We need to have a holistic approach that’s comprehensive and applies to everyone equally in the state,” Ruppersburg said, so that “your judicial outcome is not reliant on your zip code.”

The Legislature isn’t avoiding cannabis issues altogether. It has been legal since 2015 for patients in Georgia to possess cannabis oil for medical purposes. And lawmakers passed bills earlier this year that allow growing both hemp and medical marijuana oil in Georgia.

House Bill 324 allows for legal cultivation and sale of cannabis oil in Georgia.

In fact, the hemp farming law caused solicitors general in Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb counties to issue statements recently that they would begin dismissing low-level marijuana cases, or stop making arrests altogether. Since hemp is so similar to marijuana, officers would need a test to determine whether a substance is hemp or weed, they said.

Just earlier this month, a video went viral online showing a Gwinnett officer handing a small bag of marijuana back to a driver who had been pulled over. “You are more than welcome to have it back,” the officer said.

In the video, an officer tells a driver that the marijuana he found in the car during a traffic stop is nonprosecutable and hands it back to the driver.

Allen Peake, a Republican former state representative, spearheaded some of the recent medical marijuana legislation. While pushing those bills, he said, he had to take a strong stance against decriminalization for recreational use, assuring his Republican colleagues that medical marijuana would not create a “slippery slope” toward broad legalization.

But since leaving the General Assembly in 2018, Peake said, he has softened his viewpoint, and is now generally supportive of the measures to reduce the penalty for possession.

“It appeared to be a significant amount of resources devoted to very little benefit, particularly from a public safety standpoint,” said Peake, whose district included parts of the Macon area. “And so why should we be putting people in prison who have less than a very small amount of marijuana when we could be devoting resources (to the) real intense criminals out there?”

Peake said he foresees Georgia passing a law lessening the penalty for marijuana possession, possibly in the next several years.

Former Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, has been called “Georgia’s Godfather of Medical Cannabis.” BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Senate Bill 10, which Senator Jones filed earlier this year, would eliminate jail time for possessing up to two ounces of marijuana, replacing it with a fine of up to $300. The bill had a hearing but did not move forward during the legislative session this year, but it remains alive for the session in 2020.

There is certain to be continued opposition from some Republican lawmakers and groups like the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association. Terry Norris, the executive director of the GSA, said the group believes marijuana is a “gateway drug” that is harmful to communities, and especially young people. The sheriffs believe people should be taken to jail — and not just given a citation — if found with weed, Norris said.

“You must identify the person that you’re charging,” he said. “The only way that you can positively identify anybody after arrest is through a fingerprint.”

‘Uphill battle’

Could the state be on the brink of full-blown marijuana legalization?

Jones recognizes that it would be a “waste of political capital” to pursue that right now, and Ruppersburg said it is an “uphill battle.” Peake predicted it might take up to a decade for the majority of lawmakers to soften their stances on legalization.

Around the country, a dozen states have legalized adult recreational use of marijuana, and about a dozen more have reduced penalties for possession.

Peachtree NORML board member Kelly Hammock (left) during a monthly meeting Oct. 1. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

At least one state’s move to lessen possession penalties began with local decisions on decriminalization, similar to Georgia’s. Illinois decriminalized possession of small amounts of weed in 2016 after more than 200 communities in the state dropped criminal penalties for the offense, according to Chris Lindsey, the director of government relations at the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group.

“You had this disparity and the Legislature wasn’t comfortable with that,” Lindsey said, describing the “patchwork system.” This year, Illinois passed a law legalizing recreational use. It goes into effect in 2020.

In the meantime, local governments in Georgia like Athens-Clarke County are continuing to take up the issue themselves.

“The future is unwritten, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we were in a very different environment five years from now than we are right now,” Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz said. A decriminalization measure in Athens, he said, could be passed by the end of this year.

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