Torpy at Large: Atlanta’s pot laws discriminate, so change them

A marijuana bud before harvesting. (Associated Press/Andrew Selsky/Sept. 30, 2016 file photo)
A marijuana bud before harvesting. (Associated Press/Andrew Selsky/Sept. 30, 2016 file photo)

The Atlanta City Council is considering making the penalty for getting caught with pot similar to finding a parking ticket flapping on your windshield.

The effort is based on the idea that black residents are overwhelmingly the target of marijuana enforcement in the city, staining them with jail time, fines and arrest records that follow them in life.

Bill Torpy is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Bill Torpy is a columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The effort was put forward by Councilman Kwanza Hall, a mayoral candidate who has tried to carve out his place in the crowded mayor's race by pushing to do away with some quality-of-life offenses such as spitting, jay walking, idling and loitering — things one often does while smoking weed.

The effort has come up in recent City Council committee meetings but then dissipated for the proverbial “further study.”

One thing that may limit council members from moving forward is Mayor Kasim Reed’s tacit support for the effort. Or maybe it’s his tacit opposition. Several council members refuse to act until getting a mayoral nod. And elections are coming and some pols don’t like to be put on the spot with a controversial vote like this.

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While Hizzoner has acknowledged that enforcement “disproportionately affects brown people,” he also calls pot a “gateway drug.”

Last month, Reed added, “Making marijuana more easily available and penalizing it less sounds good if you have a traditional family structure. It’s a different thing if you’re a single mom trying to raise a teenager.”

Actually, it would seem that single moms might be the ones worrying most. Their’s are the kids often getting pinched, and they don’t have the $5,000 in lawyer fees lying around to get their kids off with diversion.

Between 2014 and 2016, nine out of 10 of those arrested in Atlanta for possession were black, according to the Racial Justice Action Center in East Point.

The Atlanta City Detention Center. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
The Atlanta City Detention Center. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

And Atlanta Detention Center figures show that 6,983 people during that time were booked on pot charges, almost half of them booked ONLY on simple marijuana possession. Jail stints averaged five days because the single moms also don’t have bail money.

Councilman Hall said the city is trying to work out possible kinks in an ordinance that would model itself after what the tiny DeKalb County town of Clarkston passed last year. The Clarkston ordinance limits pot possession under an ounce to a $75 ticket with no jail time.

Currently, under Georgia law, possession of small amounts is a misdemeanor that could come with $1,000 fines, probation or months in jail. And city code can’t supersede state law.

“We can’t make it legal or decriminalize it; we can reclassify it,” Hall said. “There’s a lot of moving parts.”

For instance, state police or cops from local universities would be under no compunction to follow Atlanta's guidelines. And Atlanta cops would still make pot arrests if a suspect had other criminal charges coming.

James Bell, who has advocated for reform of marijuana laws for decades, said: “They can’t force police chiefs not to make arrests. They can still make them under state law. It’s more like encouraging them.”

So, such an ordinance is more like a codified suggestion.

I called retired Atlanta policeman and union leader Ken Allen for his take. He said “there’s pros and cons on each side of it,” but his gut reaction was that cops would lose a law enforcement tool.

“If you stop a sex offender and have nothing but a marijuana arrest and then get a DNA match, then that’s a great arrest,” he said.

Legislation introduced Wednesday by a state senator would eliminate the charge of felony marijuana possession Georgia law, and reduce the crime to a misdemeanor. (Erica A. Hernandez/AJC)

There are those who accuse the council of dragging its feet.

"The law is a gateway to mass incarceration," said state Sen. Vincent Fort, a mayoral candidate who pushed this effort for years to anyone who'd listen. "There's thousands of African-American kids whose futures are blocked … to college scholarships or to jobs. And in the intervening weeks and months while we wait to do something, hundreds more kids will have their futures changed."

Tossing people in jail for pot isn't what Americans want. A national Gallup poll last fall showed that 60 percent of citizens are for legalization, more than double that of 20 years ago. We're not talking about some half-hearted effort like Atlanta's. We're talking legal marijuana dispensaries, like Colorado's.

Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry said his city had issued about 30 tickets for pot in the past eight months.

“These are people not going to jail,” he said, adding, “I definitely think a movement is started. The poll numbers show there’s a shifting in the population.”

You can see it in the small conservative town of Temple, 40 miles west of Atlanta on I-20.

Last month, that city had a loud exercise in civics when Councilwoman Penny Ransom, after learning that the local municipal court was fining defendants in excess of $1,000, decided to try to bring the Clarkston law to West Georgia.

“The penalties are too harsh, I believe that with everything in my heart,” she said. “I see this taking root in Georgia.”

Atlanta mayoral candidates (from left) Ceasar Mitchell, Kwanza Hall and Vincent Fort greet one another after their candidates forum at Georgia State Bar Headquarters on Feb. 24, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Atlanta mayoral candidates (from left) Ceasar Mitchell, Kwanza Hall and Vincent Fort greet one another after their candidates forum at Georgia State Bar Headquarters on Feb. 24, 2017. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Ransom’s effort was picked up by Todd Rothwell, a libertarian on the council who rarely agrees with her. But on this, he does.

“We’re arresting too many people,” he said.

“Everyone is sitting around waiting, but no one has the gumption to do anything about it,” he said. “I support legalization. It’s liberty. The government needs to get out of our homes and out of our wallets.”

The issue brought a crowd to the meeting last month and it sounded like feeding time at the zoo, with residents banging on tables and shouting down speakers.

The effort was voted on last week and failed, ending in a 2-2 tie (a councilman recently died and an election will be held to fill his spot.)

“This will bring people to the polls,” Councilwoman Ransom said. And once a full board is seated, she plans to again bring this question to a vote.

Maybe in the meantime, the Atlanta City Council will have the courage to do the same.

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