The small city of Clarkston, Ga., in DeKalb County, with its population of a little more than 12,000 people, may have just forever changed 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 earlier this month by unanimously approving the most progressive marijuana ordinance in Georgia.
The new city ordinance allows 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 new municipal ordinance, which just so happened to be approved the day after Independence Day on July 5, basically flies in the face of state law. Here in Georgia, 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 now in Clarkston, the city’s police officers have 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 a $75 fine.
And, let’s just say, the Clarkston City Council isn’t being shy about the fact that it wants local law enforcement officers to choose to follow the city ordinance.
“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 one 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.”
But even setting an appropriate fine for simple marijuana possession was tricky, Williams said.
“If the fine is too low it can be considered a de facto to decriminalization. That basically embroils us in litigation that we don’t want,” Williams said. “So we stuck with that particular fine at $75. We also eliminated the ability to imprison by court order for the possession of one ounce or less that is cited under the Clarkston city code ordinance.”
Williams said it was important for the ordinance to provide for only a $75 fine without incarceration because jail time can often lead to serious complications for an individual, especially if that person is employed or an enrolled college student.
However, Williams stressed that it is totally up to the arresting officer to determine whether he or she enforces the municipal code or state law during a simple marijuana possession charge.
“If an officer chooses to cite an individual under the misdemeanor law of Georgia statute, that is a whole different ballgame,” Williams said. “But we are encouraging all officers to use our code ordinance, cite the person and basically keep it moving at a $75 fine with no need to imprison a person or threaten to imprison a person for the possession of an ounce or less of marijuana.”
Of course, changes to marijuana laws in Georgia don’t come easily.
Just ask Augusta’s own state Sen. Harold Jones II.
Earlier this year, Jones introduced a proposed bill to eliminate felony marijuana possession charges throughout the state, but the bill didn’t get the support it needed this session in the Georgia Legislature.
One of the main reasons was many people immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion about the bill, thinking that Jones was looking to legalize marijuana. Instead, 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. “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 be totally barred, if your state wants to, from receiving those kinds of funds.”
Currently, there are 10 states and Washington, D.C. that do not have felony possession laws on the books, but here in Georgia the possession of 1 ounce or more of marijuana is classified as a felony.
Being charged with felony marijuana possession can drastically change a person’s life and that is why Jones decided to file Senate Bill 254 this past session.
“It is really a bill that cuts across racial lines and class lines because you have people who get caught up in this no matter what side of the fence you are on,” Jones said. “You might have a young student in Georgia who gets caught and all of a sudden they lose their financial aid to go to school. Or you also may have a person in Augusta or in Atlanta that needs a little bit of help from federal assistance and they get caught up in it and the same thing happens to them. It can have a serious effect on people’s lives, so
I thought this would be a good way of trying to rectify those situations.”
People simply needed to read the bill to realize that it has absolutely nothing to do with the legalization of the possession or selling of narcotics, Jones said.
“This is not legalization at all,” Jones said. “I don’t even think it necessarily puts us on the road to legalization. But I realize it is an education process.”
Even in the case of the state’s medical marijuana laws, change did not happen overnight and possible expansion of the state’s law has become an uphill battle.
Ever since House Bill 1, better known as Georgia’s medical cannabis bill, was approved and signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal in 2015, both children and adults who are eligible for treatment are still facing major obstacles in obtaining cannabis oil.
Currently, the state’s medical marijuana laws allow cannabis oil to be legally used by qualified patients suffering from Crohn’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, mitochondrial disease, severe multiple sclerosis, severe Parkinson’s disease, some end-stage cancers, severe sickle cell disease and severe seizure disorders relating to epilepsy or trauma-related head injuries.
While qualified patients may legally use the cannabis oil if approved by a registered physician, it is still illegal to cultivate marijuana in Georgia, which means patients don’t have any legal in-state access to the drug.
State Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon), who authored Georgia’s medical marijuana law a few years ago, is still working to expand the state law, but he is facing several obstacles of his own.
During this session, Peake filed House Bill 722 that would create an in-state growth model for medical cannabis, as well as an expanded list of qualifying medical conditions in Georgia.
“Since HB 1 was signed into law last year, hundreds of Georgians have signed up and qualified for the medical cannabis registry in our state,” Peake said when he announced HB 722 earlier this year. “Therefore, I think this legislation is the obvious next step to help hurting Georgians who need access to this medicine here at home.”
While Peake hoped to expand Georgia’s medical marijuana law, he still wanted the process to be tightly regulated.
“The cultivation, production and distribution model outlined in HB 722 is designed after the model currently in place in Minnesota, which is the most tightly regulated infrastructure in the country,” Peake said. “I took careful consideration when drafting this legislation to fully address the concerns that have been expressed by Gov. Deal and Georgia’s law enforcement community, and I am optimistic that the details of this bill will satisfy those concerns.”
The bill proposed creating an in-state growth and distribution model for the production of medical cannabis, which would allow a minimum of two and a maximum of six in-state manufacturers by December of this year.
Peake recommended that while the manufacturers cultivate, produce and dispense the final product, the bill would also create a “seed-to-sell” tracking system, intended to provide increased security and track all plants grown, processed, transferred and stored.
In addition, all manufacturers would be required to contract with an independent lab to test the medical cannabis, employ licensed pharmacists to distribute medical cannabis by July of 2017, as outlined by Peake’s office.
Under HB 722, the current medical marijuana law would be expanded to include conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, Epidermolysis bullosa, Tourette’s syndrome and intractable pain defined as “pain that cannot be removed or treated.”
“Not only is HB 722’s production and distribution model tightly controlled,” Peake said, when introducing the proposed legislation, “but this legislation strictly prohibits the production of medical marijuana in a smokeable form, which I have always been opposed to, and outlines tougher criminal penalties offenders.”
But, apparently, the bill wasn’t tough enough for Georgia legislators.
Peake was unable to convince enough colleagues or the governor to support his proposal this session and the bill died.
“Hardships remain for Georgia families, and we must find a solution for hurting citizens,” Peake recently told supporters of the bill. “It can be done.”
The problem is, whenever cities or state officials begin talking about changing Georgia’s marijuana laws, some people automatically jump to the conclusion that the Peach State wants to become the next Colorado, where pot is completely legal.
Clarkston City Councilwoman Beverly Burks, who also happens to be a native Augustan, said that is the farthest thing from the truth.
Burks was extremely outspoken about the fact that the city of Clarkston was still recognizing the fact that even simple marijuana possession is illegal in the state of Georgia.
“I want to make sure that point is very clear,” Burks said. “As a city, we understand that in terms of possession of marijuana, it is against the law. However, we are reducing the fine and we are making sure in terms of supporting our police staff that we provide them another mechanism for issuing out tickets where they are not doing $600 fines.”
But in no way is Clarkston becoming the next Boulder, Colo., she said.
“We recognize that we must comply with the state of Georgia in terms of what is currently on the books,” she said. “But we are also making sure that we have some type of understanding for the people who are involved (in simple marijuana possession charges) so they can have a second chance, in case they are arrested with this, and not put into jail.”
Burks told the audience during the July 5 city council meeting that Clarkston was simply trying to reduce the cost of fines and eliminate jail time regarding simple marijuana possession.
“We are not saying that we are approving of this behavior,” Burks said. “And this is still a fine. I think those are the points that we need to make very clear.”
But some of her fellow city councilmen in Clarkston had a bit more liberal view of the new ordinance.
City Councilman Awet Eyasu said he would have supported reducing the fine for simple marijuana possession to $5 if the city attorney would have approved that proposal. But the city attorney felt that would basically be decriminalizing pot in Clarkston, he said.
“In principle, I really definitely support a $5 fine. However, I know we can’t do that,” Eyasu said. “I would have loved to go with a lesser number of $50 because $75 is still a lot of money. But I hope there is going to be a day that is going to come where I will be on the city council again in a few years where we are going to say we are not going to charge anybody any fines (for marijuana possession).”
Clarkston City Councilman Dean Moore agreed it was time to take a broader look at simple marijuana possession.
“Considering there are states that have made marijuana legal and there are prominent figures within our United States community that have smoked this and not suffered ill effects, we felt the punishment of being arrested was greater than the actual crime itself,” Moore said. “It is a victimless crime. People who smoke it are taking their health into their own hands, much the same as if you are smoking cigarettes.”
Therefore, Moore insisted it is an individual’s decision to violate the municipal code regarding marijuana.
“We are not going to allow this to be smoked indoors and we are not encouraging anybody to smoke it,” Moore said of marijuana. “But we are trying to eliminate the process of being arrested simply for possession.”
Of course, there are officials across the state who believe even slightly reducing the punishment for drug possession is sending the wrong message.
Chuck Wade, the executive director of The Council on Alcohol and Drugs in Atlanta, feels such changes in law could encourage more marijuana use across the state.
“When the perception of harm of using a drug goes down, use of the drug goes up,” Wade recently told the Metro Spirit. “As responsible adults, we must realize that when passing pro-marijuana laws we are too often sending a message to our youth that marijuana is safe and harmless and that we are condoning and in some cases encouraging its use. We have to be very careful about that.”
However, recent studies have shown that the rates of marijuana use among Colorado’s teenagers have essentially been unchanged in the years since the state’s voters legalized marijuana in 2012, according to new data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Also, in late 2015, The Denver Post ran a series of stories on the impact of legalization of marijuana in Colorado and it found crimes relating to pot have become an “endangered species” in the state’s courts.
“In 2010 — two years before voters legalized adult possession of up to an ounce of marijuana and limited home cultivation — Colorado prosecutors filed more than 11,000 charges alleging a violation of marijuana laws, according to data provided by the Colorado Judicial Branch,” The Denver Post reported. “In 2014, the number of charges shrank to about 3,500. In 2015, it was about 2,100.”
Legalized marijuana is also obviously big business in Colorado.
“In 2014, nearly $700 million worth of medical and recreational marijuana was sold in Colorado,” according to The Denver Post article. “In 2015, stores breezed past that mark with two months to spare — with recreational sales for the first time outpacing medical sales. Statewide revenue from dedicated pot taxes easily topped the money from alcohol taxes. The number of licensed recreational marijuana stores grew by a third from Dec. 1, 2014, to Nov. 30, 2015.”
Over the past two years, Colorado also proved it can sell an enormous amount of weed.
“In the first six months of 2015, recreational and medical marijuana stores in Colorado sold a combined 56 tons of weed, nearly double what they did in the same period in 2014,” The Denver Post reported. “In any given month, Colorado is now home to more than a half-million growing marijuana plants that are destined for the state’s pot shops.”
While Georgia is nowhere near legalizing marijuana, many state and national organizations would like to see other municipalities take similar steps as Clarkston to reduce the penalties involved in marijuana possession.
Chris Lindsey, a medical marijuana attorney and a senior legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project based in Washington, D.C., applauds such changes in Georgia and throughout the country.
“Most people agree that possession of marijuana shouldn’t ruin lives,” Lindsey said.
Founded in January 1995, the Marijuana Policy Project is the largest organization in the country that’s focused solely on ending marijuana prohibition. Its mission is to change federal law to allow states to determine their own marijuana policies without federal interference, as well as to regulate marijuana like alcohol in all 50 states, Lindsey explained.
According to statistics from the Marijuana Policy Project, someone is arrested for a marijuana offense every 48 seconds in this country and 87 percent of those arrests are for marijuana possession, not for sale or manufacture.
“One thing that I would point out is that communities of color bear a particularly high burden when it comes to arrests and convictions for drug-related offenses,” Lindsey said. “There was an analysis done by the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) a couple of years ago where they went state by state and just studied the rates of arrest and prosecution for marijuana when you compare white communities and black communities. In Georgia, blacks are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites. That is a big difference and, really, both communities consume at about the same rate.”
One of the main reasons that Clarkston Mayor Edward “Ted” Terry said he supported the change in municipal code regarding simple marijuana possession was the fact that studies show that drug law enforcement across the state and country disproportionately impact lower income and minority communities.
“The people who typically get arrested or fined, not necessarily in Clarkston, but statewide and nationwide, tend to be people of lower income or people of color who, statistically speaking, use marijuana at lower rates than white Americans and wealthier Americans,” Terry said during the July 5 public hearing.
However, Terry insisted that Clarkston was not trying to cause any controversy with the state regarding its marijuana laws.
“We are trying to be as revolutionary light as we can up here,” Terry said, chuckling. “I think there are a lot of people up here and in the community who think the laws — state and federal — should completely change. But we are a city council. We can only affect what happens in our jurisdiction.”
Concentrating on significantly reducing the fine and waving jail time was the appropriate step for Clarkston, Terry said.
“Before this change, the fine that was the standard fine for simple possession was $600 and $700,” Terry said. “That is close to a month’s salary for a minimum wage worker.”
By changing the municipal code to a $75 fine, Terry said Clarkston is not unfairly fining its citizens cited for simple marijuana possession.
“There has been a trend over the past decades of shifting a lot of the expenses from county and city governments onto the backs on their residents and citizens through increasingly higher court fines,” Terry said. “It is kind of a bold move for us to say, ‘Well, we are willing to give up close to $30,000 to 40,000 a year in revenues.’ We don’t have a huge budget.”
In fact, the city of Clarkston’s fiscal year 2016 budget for all funds is about $5.7 million, according to city records.
“We are a small city, but I think we do recognize in this policy that there is a need for criminal justice reform to happen at all levels of government, but this is the only area that a municipality or a county government can actually legislate on,” Terry said. “So we are not saying it is legalized. But we are also saying that we don’t want to ruin someone’s life or drain their bank account for what could be considered a simple mistake.”
Terry said he is extremely proud to be the mayor of a city that’s willing to put its neck out regarding marijuana possession laws.
“This is where we have to begin,” Terry said. “And hopefully other cities and counties will look at their own codes and decide what is best for their communities and what they think would be an appropriate amount (for a fine). Clearly, $600 to $1,000 is excessive, punitive and it creates a blowback effect in the community that, I would argue, probably causes more crime and more harm to people.”
Prior to voting on reducing the penalties involved in simple marijuana possession, Clarkston City Councilman Mario Williams insisted that the city wasn’t trying to tread on local law enforcement’s ability to do its job.
“Officer safety is a big issue to everybody. Drugs is a big issue to everybody, especially possessing illegal drugs or drugs that are considered illegal,” Williams told the Clarkston audience. “Currently, in the state of Georgia, regardless of personal opinions, marijuana possession of any amount is prohibited. It is illegal. This particular ordinance that we passed does not prohibit an officer from exercising their discretion based on their personal experience and knowledge.”
If a police officer discovers pot on a citizen in Clarkston, it is up to that individual officer to decide how to proceed, Williams said.
“If an officer chooses to arrest under the misdemeanor statute for possession of an ounce or less, that is their choice. We trust them to make the right decision… I will give you a good example of this that was brought to my attention by our chief of police,” Williams said. “If someone possessed an ounce or less of marijuana, but an officer based on their experience and knowledge saw it cut up in certain baggies or maybe saw a scale with an ounce or less of marijuana, they can still be charged with felony possession.”
Williams said Clarkston is simply trying to change an ordinance the city council felt was treating citizens unfairly.
“We don’t want anybody threatened or imprisoned for an ounce or less of marijuana possession, but we are not taking away the officer’s discretion either,” Williams said. “We are regulating in an area where the state of Georgia is allowing, not only Clarkston, but every city in this state the ability to regulate.”
The Clarkston City Council simply hopes its decision to change its local ordinance regarding marijuana possession will begin a statewide discussion about the topic.
“Right now, we encourage all cities around Georgia to take a strong look at their laws in this area because the Georgia Legislature allows them to look at their laws and it allows them to regulate in this area,” Williams said. “But there is no such thing as Clarkston city officials trying to decriminalize marijuana. We can’t do that by law. So we never were trying to do that.”