There’s no doubt about it, Augusta Commissioner Bill Fennoy is term-limited.
That means, Fennoy isn’t worried about being re-elected to the Augusta Commission in the next few years, so he’s letting his true feelings be known.
Over the past few weeks, he has stirred up some serious controversy in this city that is home to Fort Gordon by kneeling during the pledge of allegiance at regular Augusta Commission meetings.
He also stunned some of his downtown constituents by announcing he supports the new James Brown Arena being built at the former Regency Mall site — instead of remaining in his downtown district — if a proper deal could be worked out with the mall’s property owners.
While both of those positions have left some residents thinking that Fennoy is out in left field, the commissioner did ask his colleagues to look at possibly reducing the penalty for marijuana possession of “small amounts” to simply a fine without any jail time.
That’s a pretty progressive suggestion for any sitting Augusta commissioner.
Basically, his suggestion came just days after the Atlanta City Council unanimously approved making the penalty for possession of 1 ounce or less of marijuana simply a $75 fine.
The Atlanta City Council agreed to the change, citing the uneven policing and enforcement of drug laws in the city where approximately 92 percent of those arrested for marijuana between 2014 and 2016 were African-American individuals.
Here in Georgia, state laws say possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is considered a misdemeanor and is punishable by up to a year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.
But local municipalities across the state are considering ways to circumvent state law.
Now, Fennoy isn’t the first local elected official to suggest such a change.
In 2016, state Sen. Harold Jones II announced a proposed bill to eliminate felony marijuana possession charges throughout Georgia, but his suggestion was a little too forward thinking at the time.
Many people immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion.
Jones wasn’t looking to legalize marijuana in the Peach State. He was simply trying to prevent lives from being destroyed as a result of a felony marijuana possession charge.
“What we are looking at is all of the different collateral consequences that happen once you get a felony charge, such as losing the right to vote, losing the right to sit on a jury, and, if you are in school, you can lose scholarship money,” Jones explained to the Metro Spirit in 2016. “With a felony charge, you are also totally banned in Georgia from receiving any kind of federal aid like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, which is old school for food stamps. The federal government allows you to be totally barred, if your state wants to, from receiving those kinds of funds.”
However, when Fennoy suggested that Augusta change its local enforcement laws, even Jones wasn’t sure if the city had that authority.
Jones was concerned that a consolidated government such as Augusta-Richmond County doesn’t have the power to make such a change.
But Atlanta and Augusta are simply joining a growing number of cities considering a change in their marijuana laws.
Last year, the small city of Clarkston, Ga., in DeKalb County, with its population of a little more than 12,000 people, was the first in Georgia to forever change the way local governments view simple marijuana possession across the state.
With a city motto of “Where Possibilities Grow,” the Clarkston City Council took an incredibly bold stand in July 2016 by unanimously approving the most progressive marijuana ordinance in Georgia.
The city ordinance allowed for only a $75 fine and no jail time for individuals caught with less than an ounce of pot within the Clarkston city limits.
Clarkston’s municipal ordinance basically flew in the face of state law.
It was the first municipality in Georgia that gave the city’s police officers the discretion of deciding whether to charge a person facing simple marijuana possession under state law or with violating the local ordinance and ticket that individual with a $75 fine.
“This particular ordinance came to our attention because we had various people within our Clarkston community who had been cited or ticketed and they had paid various fines,” said Clarkston City Councilman Mario Williams. “Some had paid $200, some of them had paid all the way up to the $662 maximum here in Clarkston.”
As the chairman of Clarkston’s public safety committee, Williams decided the city should study the issue and hold public hearings to discuss the matter with a wide range of organizations including Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), Georgia Cares and members of the Formerly Incarcerated, Convicted People & Families Movement.
Williams said it was important for the city to do its homework regarding the law.
“We did a lot of fact finding on this issue, and we decided that the starting point is that, for every city in Georgia, those cities have the ability to regulate in the area of possession of 1 ounce of marijuana or less to try and dispose of those cases,” Williams said. “So when we started from that position, we said, ‘What do we really want to do? And what can we legally do?’”
The last thing the city of Clarkston wanted was to enter into a legal battle with the state of Georgia over its marijuana laws, so the city council carefully reviewed its options, Williams said.
“Currently, you cannot decriminalize possession of marijuana because the Georgia Legislature has deemed it a criminal activity. So we can’t do that,” Williams said. “But what we can do is fix the fine.”
Clarkston was the first city in Georgia to make such changes, but many others are considering similar possibilities, along with other cities throughout the country.
An article recently published in Fortune magazine detailed how Washington, D.C., made it legal for adults 21 years of age or older to possess less than 2 ounces of marijuana. The city of Pittsburg passed a law that makes possession of less than an ounce punishable with a $25 fine. Those caught smoking marijuana and in possession of less than an ounce face a $100 fine. And Kansas City lowered fines to $25 and removed jail time for possession of 35 grams of cannabis or less.
Times are definitely changing.
It will be interesting to see whether Fennoy’s suggestion will ever get off the ground.