By Maggie Lee, contributor
Atlanta City Council debated — but didn’t decide — to relax the city’s punishment for possession of less than an ounce of weed. Among folks who want to be the next mayor, there’s some support for the idea of making it a non-arrestable offense, but some questions and nuance too.
There’s one official proposal that’s Council’s heard: making possession of less than one ounce of marijuana punishable by a fine of up to $75 — but no threat of jail. If it doesn’t move by the time this term ends in December, it’ll be up to a newly elected mayor and council to decide whether to return to the issue.
And any time weed comes up, it brings a lot of baggage: arcane but real questions about legal conflicts, touchiness about undoing a taboo. But marijuana also comes with racial disparities in sentencing for possession: African-Americans are more than three times more likely to be arrested marijuana than whites, though both groups use the drug at similar rates, according to a landmark American Civil Liberties Union study of the nine years to 2010.
Clarkston has already done what Atlanta’s proposing, making a little weed a ticket-only offense. But even that might be a legal headache: state law says the punishment for less than an ounce of marijuana should be up to a year in jail or a fine up to $1,000. Even if a city passes the smaller fine, folks caught with weed in cities with different local rules might still face a state charge. And not every officer who patrols Atlanta is even employed by Atlanta: there are state patrol officers on the highway and at the Capitol, for example.
We asked the front runners in the mayor’s race what they think of the proposal; and, if there’s no movement on it this year, what their policy as mayor would be.
Their comments came via phone interview or e-mail. Their verbatim answers, lightly edited:
Peter Aman, former Atlanta COO:
“African-Americans are disproportionately subject to marijuana-related encounters with law enforcement in Atlanta. We must fix these inequities.
I support the deprioritization of marijuana enforcement and will work with the courts and the police department and community to examine a procedure focused on fines, rather than jail time. Criminal justice reform is not just a buzzword. It is a thoughtful approach to finding ways to ensure citizens do not carry a lifelong burden for instances that do not cause harm to the public. Equally important, deprioritization is a cost-saving measure on the courts and the public safety budget. It allows our officers to focus on crime fighting and keeping our communities safe.
Also, I firmly believe, and research shows, marijuana use has clear impacts on the brain development of children and young adults. In addition to, or in lieu of other penalties, I will ask the courts to examine requiring individuals below a certain age to attend an educational course on the cognitive impacts of marijuana and to help them make informed choices in how, when, and where they use such a substance – as we do in case of abuse of alcohol use.”
Futon County Commission Chairman John Eaves:
“It is high time that Atlanta City Council members and Mayor Kasim Reed stop talking, and start doing something on the issue of decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana. Generally, that means these offenses are treated like a minor traffic violation: no arrest, prison time, or criminal record for a first-time possession.
Unlike my opponents who have sat on their hands while our young people suffer, I have a track record of actually doing something about issues like this one. For example, as Fulton County Chairman, I pushed through the first-ever expungement program, to give people a second chance after arrests for minor offenses— including those never prosecuted. I also championed the successful Fulton County diversion program that has seen our jail population decrease and our recidivism rate drop dramatically.
As a long-standing criminal justice, youth diversion and expungement advocate, my main concern is that for small amounts of marijuana possession, a person can have a criminal record that follows them for the rest of their life. While we must be for law and order, we also must be fair. That means using best practices based on other local government experiences. For example, the Clarkston City Council, voted unanimously last year to reduce the fine from up to $1,000 to $75 for possessing less than an ounce, and eliminating the possibility of jail time. In the nation’s capital city of Washington, D.C., voters approved decriminalization for people over the age of 21.
For a city as diverse as Atlanta, a decriminalization ordinance in this direction makes sense.
As Atlanta’s next mayor, I will continue to make juvenile justice a top priority and will work to provide laws that are fair to everyone, no matter their zip code.”
State Sen. Vincent Fort has long said he wants no jail time for possession of less than an ounce of weed.
“I’m talking about a ticket, a citation, I’m talking about no mugshot, no arrest. A citation, go on your way, pay. Anywhere from $25, $50 to $75.
Two, I am very concerned that there’s this confusion, quote-unquote confusion issue. I’ve heard some city council members and some candidates for mayor talk about how people from the outside of the city would come in and think that they could smoke dope and there’d be no consequences. That is a red herring. Then there are some other people who have said, ‘Oh I’m not going to have quote-unquote blood on my hands,’ by virtue of the fact that they say, ‘Well there’s a kid who thinks he can smoke dope anywhere, any way he wants and he gets arrested because the officer has discretion … and they’ll resist arrest and thus you know blood’ll be on the hands of anyone who supports this.’ That’s just crazy, it’s absolutely crazy. It’s unfortunate that elected officials would engage in such mendacity, intentionally trying to create confusion on the issues.
… [I]f there are all these cities all over the country including in the South, that can decriminalize marijuana, if tiny Clarkston can do it, the city of Atlanta can do it. The fact of the matter is, the city council and the mayor have been in power, in place, as well as the Fulton County Commission has been in place for years and young African American males … have been pushed into the entryway for mass incarceration and they [officials] have done nothing. And now that they have the chance to do it, they’re abdicating their responsibility.”
Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall proposed the marijuana ordinance and said he would “absolutely” follow up as mayor if it doesn’t move this year.
“It is a high priority for my administration to be able to roll out an effective and well-communicated marijuana declassification, so [people are not] not excessively penalized for possession of less than an ounce.”
Atlanta City Councilwoman Mary Norwood said that state law and the police have to be part of the discussion and it has to be clear what would apply if state and city rules say different things.
“I want a dialog with the police department as to the impact of changing the city’s ordinance and what does to offenders and whether or not … the state law would then apply. What we need is an understanding from the police department as to the steps that occur now and the steps that would occur for their police officers on the street with offenders with the changes.”
Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell:
“When I was a child being raised in this city, the last thing my father wanted to do as a police officer was to destroy the lives of young people.
The time and effort spent apprehending and sending people to jail for this minor offense would be of better use to law enforcement in their pursuit of dangerous criminals. When police officers spend time on these offenses, jail cells end up filled with non-violent offenders, while repeat and violent offenders often go free.
Atlantans deserve to have a city that encourages kids to reach their potential, not one that embraces punishment for every misstep.
While usage rates are roughly the same across different races, statistics show that African-Americans are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. For many Atlanta kids, it is a gateway to prison.
We need to do everything we can to end a process that hurts our kids by serving as a fast track to incarceration”
Former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard and Atlanta City Councilwoman Keisha Lance Bottoms did not respond to our requests for comment by Atlanta Loop’s deadline. We also attempted to contact Michael Sterling via phone and Facebook, but he could not be reached.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled a candidate’s name. This story has been updated with the correct spelling.