Pubdate: Fri, 08 Apr 2016
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Copyright: 2016 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Author: Greg Bluestein


Clarkston leaders may try to make their city the first in Georgia to 
decriminalize marijuana.

Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry said the City Council's public safety 
committee this month will review whether to make possession of less 
than 1 ounce of marijuana a ticket-only offense, putting it on the 
same level as a run-of-the-mill traffic violation. He expects the 
full council to bring it to a vote as early as May.

"The bottom line is the War on Drugs has failed," said Terry, also a 
vice chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia. "It is time for 
elected officials to use evidence-based policies to make our 
communities safer and fight drug abuse."

Other Georgia cities have flirted with the idea, but they've failed 
to gain traction. An effort in Athens sputtered recently when the 
city attorney concluded that state laws that make possession of the 
drug a misdemeanor crime take precedence over local ordinances.

Terry said his city is prepared to argue that it has "concurrent 
jurisdiction" with the state over low-level drug offenses. 
Clarkston's plan would lay out a fee schedule that could charge as 
little as $5 in Municipal Court for the first offense.

At least 18 states and dozens of cities, including Detroit, New York 
and Philadelphia, have passed ordinances to make possessing small 
amounts of marijuana a noncriminal offense. But the National 
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a marijuana rights 
advocacy group, said it knows of no Georgia city with such a formal policy.

Paul Armentano, NORML's deputy director, said the citation-only 
policies allow local authorities to "reprioritize resources" away 
from marijuana possession toward more serious crimes.

The reception it faces among Georgia's leaders is a different story.

Georgia lawmakers have passed legislation that diverts more low-level 
drug offenders from lengthy prison sentences and legalized the use of 
a form of medical marijuana. But Gov. Nathan Deal has firmly opposed 
an expansion that would allow the in-state cultivation of the drug 
and said repeatedly it should be left to Congress, and not the state, 
to make broader changes to marijuana policy.

"We want to find a pathway to bring our children home from Colorado 
without becoming Colorado," Deal said in his 2015 State of the State 
speech, referring to families that have taken their children to the 
Western state that has legalized marijuana so they can use the drug 
to treat ailments, particularly seizures. It's a line the governor 
has repeated several times since.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigations declined to comment on the 
Clarkston proposal.

There are legal questions about whether state law gives the DeKalb 
County city the authority to decriminalize the drug. Bill Berryman, 
the Athens-Clarke County attorney who vetted the idea for his County 
Commission, said in an interview that his interpretation of the law 
gives the General Assembly the final say over local governments on 
issues involving controlled substances.

The mayor of Clarkston, a city with a long progressive streak, seems 
willing to test that theory. Terry was one of the most outspoken 
opponents of Deal's attempt to halt Syrian refugees from resettling 
in Georgia, and the city of roughly 8,000 has become a home for 
immigrants fleeing persecution or war from around the globe.

"Hopefully, the Legislature will applaud local control and home rule 
powers being used innovatively to address a major injustice in the 
judicial system," Terry said, "and not try to pre-empt this next session."
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