Be mindful of your buds in (and out of) Atlanta

Photo by Vanessa Johnson | The Signal

On Oct. 2, the Atlanta City Council took to Twitter to announce their unanimous decision on the most hopeful pro-marijuana legislation to date: penalties lowered for marijuana possession of under an ounce.

Marijuana advocates rejoiced when Mayor Kasim Reed backed the legislation following its announcement, but the standing implications of Georgia’s marijuana laws were apparent against the city of Atlanta’s ordinance.

The standing Georgia marijuana laws require law enforcement to incarcerate individuals found with marijuana and confiscate their possessions seen fit to the incident of arrest. The penalty of carrying less than one ounce of marijuana is decided by judges from a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to six months in jail.

Jailhouse blue (dreamin’)

Atlanta Municipal Courts mirrored that even after Oct. 2, and despite severely reduced fines, people are still going to go to jail for possessing marijuana even under an ounce.

So, what exactly does the new city legislation mean?

  • It does not make possessing marijuana legal.
  • Selling or possessing any amount of marijuana is still against the law everywhere.
  • Under the new city ordinance, a municipal judge has one option for punishment: a $75 fine and no jail time, rather than Georgia’s max fine of $1,000 and up to six months in jail.
  • Individuals can still go to jail at the time of the incident.

Last week, two Georgia State University students were arrested for “possessing marijuana in M Deck” at the Downtown campus, and despite the new legislation they were taken to jail.

In most cases, at least until law enforcement gets used to it, people will still go to jail, get bonded out and only then will they receive a ticket of $75 at their court hearing. Basically, it’s up to an officer to decide if you go to jail or not for possessing or smoking marijuana. From there, the judge deems the penalties for you to endure which are now on a scale of minimum to maximum when compared to the looming of Georgia’s law over Atlanta’s. If it seems backwards, that’s understandable, but the new city ordinance isn’t so that people can smoke pot in public or outwardly possess it — that’s what legalization will bring.

The reason that the City of Atlanta was strongly supportive of the legislation was because it would minimize incarceration rates, namely at the Atlanta City Detention Center, the facility where all arrested persons in the city’s limits are temporarily held before their initial court hearing or release.

This is not where individuals serve their actual sentence if given one, but next stop for that fate is Fulton County Jail. Fulton County has neared its federal population cap for inmates almost every year since 2013 due to nonviolent crimes such as marijuana possession.

Not worth the huffs and puffs

According to The Signal’s reporting of the legislation, Councilman Kwanza Hall, “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.” People pushed for this legislation on their own time and it was passed to protect the people who are at risk to go to jail and stay in jail for small nonviolent crimes and possessions.

So, please, don’t be reckless. You can still get jail time or a higher fine if you’re caught smoking anywhere in Atlanta. The best thing you can do as a cannabis user is to educate yourself and others. If you outright exploit or take advantage of this before anyone can actually reap the benefits of the legislation, then you’re damaging something bigger than yourself.

Marijuana’s approval has shifted demographics dramatically as resistance fades. According to Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan publisher, “57 percent of U.S. adults say the use of marijuana should be made legal, while 37 percent say it should be illegal. A decade ago, opinion on legalizing marijuana was nearly the reverse – just 32 percent favored legalization, while 60 percent were opposed.” From incarceration to drug abuse, it’s ironic to some, but marijuana is a solution and not the problem nowadays.

Still, for us in Atlanta, marijuana is not legal or decriminalized and the ordinance is not recognized outside of city limits. Georgia State commuters should be aware of this, as well. It’s not allowing a big playground in the campus courtyard where everyone is smoking — at least not joints, not yet. The law seems like a revolutionary win for marijuana users and advocates and it is, but not at the scale that people are assuming.

Georgia Marijuana Statutes

The following chart highlights the main provisions of Georgia marijuana laws.

Code Section 16-13-30, et seq.
Possession 1 oz or less: misdemeanor, 1 yr. or $1,000 fine; more than 1 oz (but less than 10 lbs.): felony, 1-10 yrs.; over 10 lbs. is considered trafficking
Medical Marijuana Eligible patients may possess up to 20 ounces of low-THC (high-CBD) cannabis oil; possession of the whole plant is not allowed, nor is cultivation. Although low-THC cannabis oil is legal in the state, it is not clear how it should be obtained.
Sale or Trafficking Felony. 10 lbs or less: 1-10 yrs; 10-2000 lbs.: 5 yrs. and mandatory $100,000; 2000-10,000 lbs.: 7 yrs. and mandatory $250,000; Over 10,000 lbs.: 15 yrs. and mandatory $1,000,000


The only legally-recognized consumption of marijuana is enacted by House Bill 1, also known as the “Haleigh’s Hope Act,” which permits medical patients to possess cannabis oil with a low percentage of tetrahydrocannabinol, more commonly known as THC. As medical marijuana practice grows in Georgia, laws will hopefully lean towards a steadier path with its expansion.

There’s still a long ways to go for the marijuana legislation in the state of Georgia, and even the city of Atlanta, but I’m surprised at the rapid amount of legislation that is being set forth throughout the state (this means you “Out of the Perimeter” peeps.) Despite the reserve that’s constantly observed in our state’s legislation, work is being done for medicinal patients and that’s a hopeful start.

High hopes

It’s a little unreal to think that other Georgia cities will immediately follow in Atlanta’s footsteps, but hopefully, other municipal courts will recognize the benefits of the minimized penalties for individuals. This is not uncommon as opinions of the court in state districts will circulate the majority opinion naturally, as with DUI cases. A retired Fulton County Judge, Andy Mikel, told me once that judges will recognize similar cases in nearby areas and begin to follow in their steps: it’s just a matter of time.

In the meantime, familiarize yourself with the laws in the area that you live in and try to discover what’s being done in your community. The Georgia Campaign for Access, Reform and Education (CARE) Project is a nonprofit advocacy organization dedicated to the reform of Georgia’s outmoded, racially biased and un-compassionate cannabis laws.They are a volunteer organization advocating for the end of marijuana prohibition on a city-by-city basis in Georgia.

Big change starts small, but there’s always a place to start. Following the passing of the legislation, Councilman Kwanza Hall tweeted, “Let me be clear. Jail is a gateway, not possession of marijuana.” So, as ATLiens we can rejoice for our community’s step in the right direction. Find your part on the greener side.