Atlanta’s city council is contemplating making a smart move by decriminalizing marijuana possession (up to an ounce) within city limits. The current ludicrous threat of jail time would be replaced with a paltry $75 fine.
Many say Atlanta has a major policing problem along racial lines—more black residents are getting arrested for marijuana possession than their white counterparts, to an eery degree. Proponents of this new policy say decriminalization could partially ease those tensions.
Currently, punishments vary for first-time possession of up to an ounce. On the second offense, however, you can pay up to $1000 in fines and spend up to one year in jail. Possessing more than an ounce can result in one to ten years behind bars.
A $75 fine would be a welcome change and would show that Atlanta is yet another in a long list of cities attempting to restore sanity to drug sentencing.
The War on Drugs and Racism
Between 2014 and 2016, 92 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession within Atlanta city limits were black, according to City Councilman Kwanza Hall. Current legislation is designed to reduce racial policing issues and lessen incarceration of blacks for nonviolent offenses.
As marijuana becomes increasingly accepted, Atlanta’s arrest demographics look unsettling compared to the rest of the country. Thankfully, if the city council alters these needlessly punitive laws, policing in Atlanta has the opportunity to change for the better.
Atlanta is no outlier in pursuing this change at the local level. City councils across the country are beginning to push bold new measures that sidestep state and federal laws.
Of course, this creates obvious conflict between city, state and federal lawmakers which will need to be sorted out by the courts. But it also allows local governments to decide which policy issues they care about and how to solve problems as they arise, without layers of bureaucracy.
In Atlanta, for example, this proposal means local government might be on its way to changing racially disparate arrest outcomes and ensuring people aren’t locked up for minor non-violent drug offenses.
In 2016, Nashville’s city council passed a similar measure that reduced penalties for possession of half an ounce (or less) of marijuana. Although the Republican-dominated Tennessee legislature is currently wrestling with how to reconcile city and state law, many residents of Nashville (including the mayor) have fervently supported these relaxed marijuana penalties.
Pittsburgh’s city council recently decriminalized weed as well, allowing police to issue a $100 fine for an ounce or less of marijuana possession. This replaces an old policy of massive fines and some amount of jail time, depending on quantity.
DC’s Initiative 71 has certainly been an example of local decision-making creating better outcomes than bureaucratic entanglement. Although in clear conflict with federal law, Initiative 71 allows adults to possess two ounces or less, grow up to six plants (three mature) in the privacy of their own home and gift small amounts of marijuana to one another.
If I controlled marijuana policy, I would create something far laxer, but DC laws are a step in the right direction—and they’ve had no disastrous consequences so far.
Big government proponents tout federal decision-making as the most important. They advocate for the expansion of power through bureaucracy and executive order. The beauty of local control is that city councils have a clearer sense of which policies will work well for a specific group.
Those that are close to a situation have a better sense of what will solve it. It’s time for more city councils to take Atlanta’s lead and pursue better drug policy, even if it creates turmoil when reconciling local and state laws.
Although Atlanta is still considering whether they want to implement these new marijuana laws, it seems as though they’ve realized that doling out harsher penalties for minor drug possession rarely creates good outcomes, and often turn police-community relations antagonistic. Fortunately, they can change that.
Liz Wolfe is managing editor of Young Voices.