Atlanta Is the Latest Southern City to Push for Pot Decriminalization

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Startups, independent bookstores, popping nightlife—Atlanta is cool. Creatives and entrepreneurs and anyone else seeking decent wages and legitimate culture in a livable climate have been drawn to Atlanta for several years now, long enough for Atlanta to be so cool that it’s just about over.

When cities become meccas for transplants from around the country (or beyond), the destination city inevitably changes. The newcomers bring their habits and their mores with them. In the case of Atlanta—which has its share of homegrown musicians and artists, but is also seeing an influx of creative-types from Hollywood and other places where people expect marijuana to be treated not like it’s toxic—this includes, at last, liberalized drug policy.

As the Atlanta Journal Constitution is reporting, the Atlanta City Council is considering a proposal to decriminalize marijuana possession. Like almost everywhere else in the South, under Georgia law, simply having a joint or blunt in your pocket in Atlanta is grounds for an arrest and nearly everybody arrested for the “crime” is black.

Simple possession is a misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail—unless it’s hash or concentrates, or unless the joint strays within 1,000 feet of a school, in which case, it’s a felony.

As usual, the vast, vast majority—92 percent, in this case—of people arrested and punished for pot possession are black, despite no evidence to suggest that white people are using the drug any less. (In fact, considering black people as a whole tend to view marijuana less favorably than whites, a trend that developed concurrently with black people getting thrown into jail at a disproportionate rate, it’s safe to assume that white people are more likely to use cannabis.)

This is one of many hang ups that get people stuck in our jails,” said City Council member Kwanza Hall, who’s behind the proposal.

On April 17, the council will vote on lowering the penalty for simple possession of limited amounts of marijuana to a $75 ticket. This approach is similar to the ones seen in New Orleans, where police have had the discretion to charge possession with a court summons since 2010, and in Nashville and Memphis—where efforts to decriminalize marijuana, approved at the local level, were upended by meddling state lawmakers.

The effort in Atlanta seems likely to pass, because it’s a political winner.

Both Hall and Georgia state Sen. Vincent Fort, who is also pushing to decriminalize marijuana, are candidates for Atlanta mayor. Kasim Reed, the current mayor, has yet to opine on the effort, ahead of a planned “roundtable discussion” with “judges and police”—which is a sign of how popular of an idea decriminalization is. One of the proposal’s chief critics, council member Michael Julian Bond, agrees with the proposal in principle—his main issue, the newspaper reported, is the size of the fine.

Whether outside lawmakers will then choose to nullify what Atlanta does, as we saw in Tennessee, remains to be seen.

Keep in mind, Georgia is the state that sent Tom Price to Congress, so anything is possible—including Atlanta reclaiming some of its bona fide cool factor by taking the first step on the long road to marijuana legalization. 

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