The Atlanta City Council (ACC) has delayed to vote on a proposal that would eliminate jail time for people caught using marijuana, and lower possession fines to up to only $75.
The ACC met on April 17 and voted 10-4 to send the proposal back to the Public Safety Committee for further discussion.
According to Atlanta Black Star, members argued that other issues such as the I-85 bridge collapse have taken up the administration’s attention, in addition to not having enough time to consider the proposal with Mayor Kasim Reed’s administrative team nor legal staff and law enforcement committee.
Mayor Reed is unsure that he will sign the legislation if it comes to his desk, and has called marijuana a “gateway drug.”
“The more we talk about it, the more comes out that needs to be talked about,” ACC member Michael Bond said. “That’s really what’s happening is that this is a big subject and has come up in three committee meetings and the chair hosted two work sessions.”
The legislation, proposed by ACC member Kwanza Hall, would lower fines for charges of marijuana possession of an ounce or less to a maximum of $75, rather than face jail time and/or criminal charges.
Under current Georgia law, pot posession of an ounce or less can give you a maximum $1000 fine at the municipal (city) level and $2000 at the state level, while marijuana is still illegal in Georgia. Jail time could be maximum 180 days.
Advocates of the change such as Chris Everard, have voiced that current law unevenly affects the poor population and minorities. They believe lowering the fines for pot possession and eliminating jail time would lessen the numbers of African Americans and Latinos sent to jail.
“The proposal is a step in the right direction, and is an appropriate measure since Georgia passed medicinal oil a few years back,” Everard said. “The new law will automatically decrease minorities in prison but should be enacted retroactively, for those currently incarcerated, as there is a drastic difference [in] sentencing parameters.”
Georgia State campus police reports state that in 2017, there have been 18 arrests related to marijuana possession on Georgia State’s campuses.
According to American Civil Liberties Union, “despite roughly equal usage rates, Blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.”
Support for the proposal was spurred on in January, when 24-year-old Deaundre Phillips was shot and killed by Atlanta police. Authorities said they found Phillips asleep in his car, which reportedly reeked of weed. When officers approached him, Phillips tried to flee, prompting the officer to shoot.
Advocate and Georgia State student, Jessica Chatman, sees the law amendment as possible justice for Phillips and his family.
“I personally believe that the proposal could serve as a form of justice for Phillips but I also believe laws concerning police brutality and accountability would have a more lasting effect,” Chatman said.
She believes that Phillips may not have fled the scene if he punishment wasn’t as excessive as it currently is and he could still be alive today.
“While I do not know for sure, [I] would imagine that without fear of harsh jail time, or outrageous fines, that Phillips would not have fled the scene,” Chatman said. “It can then be argued that officers would not have had any reason to retaliate past the routine stop and consequences to follow.”
Bond, who voted to delay a decision, said “underneath [there are] a lot of these swirling points of contention” as to why the proposal hasn’t been voted on yet.
Regarding skimming the tide of African Americans in prison, Bond said that advocates of the proposal have “presented a lot of national evidence and anecdotes to that point,” but an analysis from Atlanta corrections and police departments seem to contradict that.
According to Bond, there were over 2200 arrests for marijuana possession in Atlanta. There are two charges for possession of less than an ounce – a state level charge, which overrides municipal code, and municipal/city level charges. The proposal on the table is to change the fines and potential jail time associated with the municipal code, which is a misdemeanor.
The ACC discovered that out of the 2200 marijuana possession arrests done by Atlanta police, only four were associated with the misdemeanor charge. This information from law enforcement is what sparked the ACC to send the legislation back to the Public Safety Committee.
“After all of the debate we had in the past several months, that kind of spun things on its head because it demonstrates that our police aren’t even charging folks with the law that everyone is [trying to change],” Bond said. “Part of our debate has been how effective would the law be or how effective would this change be on a local level?”
Police officers, in every municipality of the state, still have the discretion to charge citizens with whatever charge they choose, whether misdemeanor or state. The chief of police could encourage Atlanta police to use the city level charge, however, this would simply be an suggestion, not a non-negotiable rule. Police agencies are not required to adhere to any changes the council makes in regard to municipal law.
Bond said the moral implications of whether or not a person wants to appear to be lenient on drug use are also to be considered, because at the end of the day “even if we were to lower the fines to ten cents, marijuana is still illegal.”
“There is apprehension that if we were to reduce the fines and jail time then perhaps we are giving a wink and a nod to condoning illegal drug use. It doesn’t matter whether or not people perceive marijuana as harmful or not,” Bond said. “It’s still illegal.”
Bond and another ACC member Keisha Bottoms, are concerned that passing the legislation might give people the wrong impression and encourage people to do illegal things, and with the possibility that marijuana is a gateway drug. Also to be considered is the effect of drug use and commerce in a community.
“I am just concerned that it’s very confusing to our citizens. When you look at places that have decriminalized marijuana, it’s been on a state level where it’s been successful,” Bottoms said. “I just think that we are treading on very dangerous territory, because we’re sending a message that is a disingenuous message, because we’re giving people the impression that something is legal in this city, [when] it is not.”
Bond himself is “very conflicted” about this proposal and where changing the fines may lead, and agrees that $1000 in fines is too high and that six months in jail is too long, but also that $75 is too low. He is concerned that a $75 fine might not be a big enough deterrent from continued illegal possession of marijuana.
“The advocates say ‘well these are poor black people that can’t afford that fine, they can’t afford to pay $75 when they go to court’,” Bond said. “But yet, a lot of these folks are chronic marijuana users and they can find the money to buy the marijuana.”
According to Bond, the Atlanta Police Department (APD) would not comment on the issue and presented no statistical information until about two weeks ago.
“There really wasn’t a balanced forum for both sides of the discussion and I think if that had happened earlier on, then we probably wouldn’t be in this position today,” Bond said.
Since marijuana is still illegal in Georgia, a fine for possession still goes on your criminal record and may be a potential roadblock in the process of looking for a job or working with different organizations.
“There are a lot of young people’s lives that are messed up because they get caught with a small amount of marijuana,” Bond said. “But you have to look at the flip side of that, too, and say ‘well, if you weren’t smoking the marijuana you wouldn’t have gotten locked up.’”
What remains is that even if fines are lowered, possession still puts you under arrest, goes on your criminal record, and holds conviction in a court of law.
“It could still hurt you when you’re looking for a job or trying to find certain types of housing or certain types of public assistance or benefit, it could still count against you,” Bond said. “So what are we really accomplishing?”