New marijuana legislation is headed to Kasim Reed’s desk after passing in the Atlanta City Council. Over 50 public speakers managed to convince City Council on the new piece of legislation, which unanimously passed Monday, Sept. 2 around 5 P.M.
The legislation reduces the penalty of carrying less than one ounce of weed from a max fine of $1000 and up to six months in jail, to a new max fine of $75 and no jail time. The legislation, introduced by Councilman and mayoral candidate Kwanza Hall, passed through committee hearings on Friday, Sept. 27 after a similar measure was denied in April.
Hall said he hopes that these measures will reduce the racial disparities in marijuana arrests in Atlanta, and would condemn less minor offenders to jail. Hall’s office cited that 92 percent of people jailed for marijuana use were African-Americans, versus the 54 percent African-American population in the city of Atlanta.
He also said the punishment does not fit the crime.
“Our current policy destroys lives. It tears apart families, causes students to lose scholarships, and renders a generation of young people unable to get a job. We waste millions of taxpayer dollars on arresting, trying and jailing marijuana offenders.” Hall said.
Issues of jurisdiction were brought up in the previous committee on how overlapping districts, such as the one between Georgia State University Police (GSUPD) and Atlanta Police, would handle the new changes. Joseph Spillane, GSUPD Chief, lessened these worries by explaining to the committee how the department already handles marijuana possession on campus.
“We deal with a lot of marijuana cases and we try to run them through the city, which gives us an additional way to dispose of these cases, where they [students] can go through a pre-trial intervention and have it dropped from their record and we can send it through the student code of conduct, which is a preference of mine.” Spillane said.
Jurisdiction also causes some leeway on how peace officers choose to press charges.
“There is a state statute that also covers criminal penalties for marijuana possession and any peace officer can use it (including Atlanta Police) if they have jurisdiction.” said Carlos Campos, the Atlanta Police department’s Director of Public Affairs.
Between the time the measures passed committee and the time it became law, there has been lots of confusion on what the changes might mean. Because of this, Campos made clear that possession of Marijuana is still illegal, both at a state and city level. However, he made sure to note that it is also not the police force’s focus to be rounding up people for usage of the drug.
“Our focus here at APD is on getting violent criminals off the streets. Our officers are not out patrolling for people smoking marijuana; we’d rather focus on those committing armed robberies and other violent acts,” Campos said.
Georgia State police Chief Joseph Spillane noted how there wasn’t going to be much of a change on campus from the changes in the penalty. He noted that, although the fine is lowered greatly, he doesn’t expect to see many more people being arrested for possession in Atlanta. Spillane said that the biggest change would be seen in the relationships between the students and the police.
“It might help our relationship album the students cuz we’re not really sending them to somewhere where they could have paid $1,000 fine and up to the year in jail on a misdemeanor. Now it’s reduced to basically a traffic ticket with a $75 fine,” said Spillane.
But some are worried about the health impact that this legislation might have on the people of Atlanta and are afraid that the legislation was passed just as a political move. Marcus Cain, a freshman at Georgia State, sees this as a big issue.
“Studies show that marijuana has many effects on the brain and body. I believe that many of our lawmakers know of this but I believe that they passed the law just to appease majority rules instead of protecting the health of citizens,” Cain said. ”I just think that they wanted to decriminalize marijuana to make our legal system on paper look better compared to the rest of the world.”