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Will This Southern City Follow Atlanta’s Lead on Drug Reform?

Adam Drury

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Will This Southern City Follow Atlanta's Lead on Drug Reform?

It would be tough to deny that the United States is fast-entering a golden age of cannabis. Yet from another perspective, the divide between legal weed and harsh criminalization is as sharp as ever. Southern states especially have been reluctant to give up their prohibitionist stance on cannabis. And while they aren’t alone (think of Indiana and Wisconsin), southern states like Florida and Tennessee still have some of the harshest criminal penalties for marijuana possession. But one state, Georgia, is making moves to break away from the regional trend. Earlier this month, for example, the Atlanta City Council voted unanimously to pass a marijuana decriminalization ordinance. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed signed the bill into law last week. And now, another Georgia city is taking its cue from Atlanta. Will this southern city follow Atlanta’s lead on drug reform?

Savannah, Georgia: Will This Southern City Follow Atlanta’s Lead on Drug Reform?

After news that Atlanta had decriminalized marijuana possession, Savannah alderman Van Johnson didn’t wait long to push for a virtually identical ordinance in his city.

The Atlanta ordinance took a major step forward on marijuana decriminalization. By reducing the fine for possession from $1,000 to $75 and eliminating jail time, the Georgia capitol began the process of addressing decades of racially biased drug law enforcement.

In Georgia, arrest rates for marijuana possession show extreme demographic disparities targeting minorities and especially young people. Under Georgia’s harsh weed laws, arrest records and convictions make it hard for young people to work, rent and earn scholarships for school.

According to Van Johnson, similar motives led him to propose his own version of Atlanta’s decriminalization ordinance.

And on Monday, Johnson officially announced that he intends to reduce the fine for misdemeanor possession and eliminate mandatory jail time.

But there are a few key differences in Johnson’s proposal.

In Savannah, the fine would be reduced from $1,000 to $150, rather than $75. But 20 percent of those fines, Johnson proposed, would go toward funding the city’s drug treatment programs.

Johnson also said that his proposed ordinance would free up resources for law enforcement to tackle more serious, violent crime. Indeed, Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher told reporters that he receives three or four misdemeanor cannabis possession arrest at his jail each week.

Savannah Mayor Hesitant To Take Small Step Toward Weed Decriminalization

Alderman Van Johsnon is optimistic that his proposal can continue the momentum of Altanta’s landmark ordinance. But other city officials seem to be on the lookout for reasons to quash it.

Johnson put forward an ambitious timetable for passing the decriminalization ordinance in Savannah. He plans to present it to the Savannah City Council within 45 days.

In the meantime, Johnson is seeking input and feedback from the city manager, city attorneys, law enforcement chiefs and Savannah mayor Eddie DeLoach.

But it could be an uphill battle convincing many of them.

In major elections back in November 2015, Savannah experienced a sea change in local politics. Incumbent black leaders, in a city with a 55 percent black population, fell to a number of conservative white candidates, including DeLoach.

DeLoach launched his campaign capitalizing on concerns about crime and the city’s struggling economy. Fittingly, then, his response to Alderman Johnson’s new marijuana ordinance was to defer to the recommendation of local law enforcement.

“I do trust their judgment,” DeLoach said.

Yet those same law enforcement officials are declining comment on the issue.

“All comments on legislation and ordinances will need to come from the elected officials,” said police spokeswoman Cpl. Hillary Nielsen.

As misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests are on the rise, up nearly 20 percent from 2015 to 2016, Johnson remains committed to the proposed decriminalization ordinance.

After all, Johnson isn’t pushing for legalization or even full decriminalization.

“It’s still illegal and will remain illegal,” he said. “The question is how it is handled locally.”

Even so, this small step could make a big difference in the lives of Savannah residents, especially for minorities.

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