Pubdate: Thu, 07 Jul 2016
Source: Atlanta Journal-Constitution (GA)
Copyright: 2016 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Author: Laura Thompson
Note: The article title is from the Print Edition


The Clarkston City Council has voted unanimously to approve the most
liberal marijuana ordinance in the state, reducing fine from up to
$1,000 to $75 for possessing less than an ounce, and eliminating the
possibility of jail time for breaking municipal law.

"We just made history," whispered Sharon Ravert, a Dahlonega resident
and advocate for marijuana legalization, when she saw the council's
seven hands raised in unison on Tuesday.

Mayor Ted Terry has argued that drug law enforcement
"disproportionately affects lower income communities and communities
of color." As the state's hotbed for refugee resettlement, Clarkston
is one of the most diverse cities in the state. According to census
statistics, the city of 12,000 is nearly 60 percent black and 53.5
percent foreign born.

"We're not saying it's legalized," Terry said, "but we're also saying
we don't want to ruin someone's life or drain their bank account for
what could be considered a simple mistake."

But, despite Clarkston's vote, it's up to the discretion of law
enforcement officers whether a person faces charges of violating the
city ordinance or state law. When officers come across someone in
possession of less than an ounce of pot, they can treat it either way.

While Tuesday's vote reduces the penalty for a city violation, a
person charged with a state offense could face higher fines and jail
time. According to state law, possession of less than an ounce of
marijuana is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a
$1,000 fine.

Gov. Nathan Deal has repeatedly said that drug enforcement laws should
be left to Congress. A similar effort to decriminalize marijuana in
Athens failed last year when the city attorney concluded that state
law trumped municipal. codes.

"There's a food chain of ordinances, and municipal codes are at the
very bottom," said Chuck Spahos, the executive director of the
Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia.

He thinks that Clarkston's ordinance could lull citizens into a false
sense of security. "From a legal standpoint, the municipality can't
prevent someone from being charged in a state or superior court."

Clarkson Police Chief Christine Hudson had no objection to the vote.
Even before council's decision, she said, it was unlikely that
violators would go to state court for mere possession of pot.
Clarkston's municipal judge rarely sentence someone to jail time for
less than an ounce of marijuana, she added.

"Really and truthfully, nothing is changing for us," Hudson

Terry, also a vice chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, has
argued that the war on drugs has failed and that elected officials
need to use "use evidence-based policies to make our communities safer
and fight drug abuse."

For Ravert, the necessity of changing marijuana laws became apparent
in 2006 after her daughter was arrested for a gram and a half of the
drug in Lumpkin County. It's a charge, she said, that could have
ruined the 19 year old's life. Ravert since has become the executive
director of Peachtree NORML, the Georgia chapter of the National
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and travels the country
lobbying for change.

Councilman Mario Williams, the chair of the public safety and legal
committee, acknowledged that full decriminalization of marijuana isn't
possible under state law, but said the council is working within its
legal authority by dramatically decreasing the fine.

The council hopes this philosophy will have a ripple effect on local
governments throughout the state.

"We did a lot of fact finding on this issue, and we decided that the
starting point is that, for every city in Georgia, those cities have
the ability to regulate in the area of possession of one ounce or less
of marijuana," Williams said. The council hopes this philosophy will
have a ripple effect on local governments throughout the state.
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