Marijuana Decriminalization– Thousands Still in Legal Limbo

It is estimated that as many as 40,000 Georgians have been charged for possession of marijuana. Georgia remains one of the few states without any level of statewide decriminalization of marijuana possession.

Both Doraville and Atlanta have decriminalized possession of smaller amounts of marijuana. However, when only selectively decriminalized, officers have a chance to charge someone on a state level when charged with other crimes in addition to possession. Effectively, an officer can choose to bypass decriminalization.

Many supporters of decriminalization emphasize the potential financial benefits of decriminalization. Jon Gettman estimated yearly costs of marijuana law enforcement to be upwards of $7.6 billion per year.

However, financial benefits are not the whole story. This does not account for social costs. Police have to dedicate manpower to enforcement. As we face a spike in crime, such manpower could be key for preventing and prosecuting violent crimes.

Minor drug convictions also have people pulled from their lives, their families and their jobs to serve time. Even then, the difficulty doesn’t end once the time is served or, if lucky, they are pardoned. Former inmates can face discrimination in housing, employment, adoption and more.

Such roadblocks to returning to everyday life enforce a ‘once a criminal, always a criminal’ mentality and prevent re-acclimation.

This doesn’t even account for those whose charges were classified as felonies which results in the loss of certain rights. In conjunction with the trend of over-policing of people of color, the impact of incarceration for minor marijuana charges perpetuates a cycle of poverty and struggle.

As Birmingham Mayor Randall Woofin put it, “No one should be held up by a single past mistake. No one should be denied job opportunities or freedoms due to missteps from the past,”.

Difficulties don’t stop there, unfortunately. Many states require inmates to petition the courts for resentencing, expungement and/or sealing of records.

While some states have placed provisions for automatic expungement, these usually have limitations such as only applying to charges within certain years. In North Dakota, the Governor’s Office estimated in 2019 that as many as 175,000 are eligible for relief while only a few hundred utilized the relief that year.

Groups such as the Last Prisoner Project are fighting to help inmates cut through the mass of red tape, but, as it stands, hundreds of thousands are facing consequences from charges that have since been decriminalized.