GA: Marijuana Comes With A Ticket, Not Jail, In City Of Clarkston


In the mellow suburban town of Clarkston, where aging hippies mingle easily with refugees, arrests for marijuana violations were never a top priority.

So it wasn’t much of a surprise when the city passed Georgia’s most relaxed marijuana law, reducing the fine for possession of less than an ounce of the drug to $75.

That was two and a half months ago. In that time, town leaders and residents are proud to say, the law has resulted in absolutely no changes. Clarkston is still Clarkston, not a drug haven.

As more time passes, some say, leaders of other cities might look at the town and see that nothing bad happens when you get rid of $1,000 fines and threats of a criminal record for marijuana consumption.

Though marijuana remains illegal in Georgia, maybe Clarkston will set a trend toward less severe punishments, supporters of the marijuana measure say.

“I don’t feel like there’s anything wrong with smoking weed,” Dawn Barnett, a cashier, said at Refuge Coffee in Clarkston last week. “Other states have laws where you can just smoke it for medical reasons, but in Georgia they just want to be strict. It’s a step in the right direction.”

With the marijuana ordinance, Clarkston is trying to distinguish itself as a progressive city that’s taking on criminal justice issues, said Mayor Ted Terry. During the same July 5 meeting in which the City Council approved the marijuana regulation, it also raised the minimum wage for city employees to $15 and made Election Day a half-day holiday.

Located along a rail line just outside the Perimeter, tucked between Stone Mountain and Decatur, Clarkston is often overlooked because it lacks high-rise business development seen in nearby cities. But it’s been called “the most diverse square mile of America,” with hookah parlors and restaurants serving a variety of foods from around the world.

“There are a lot of people in the community who see the war on drugs has failed,” Terry said. “What we’re saying is that we don’t want someone to go to jail, lose $600 to $1,000, get their car towed and maybe lose their job over something that isn’t causing a public safety threat to our community.”

Police haven’t changed how they do their jobs since the marijuana ordinance passed, and they’re still citing residents for possession at the same rate as they did previously, said Clarkston Police Chief Christine Hudson. Almost all of marijuana citations are doled out when officers smell or see marijuana during traffic stops, she said.

Officers have ticketed eight people for marijuana possession since the new law passed – the same number of citations as July and August last year.

“It’s against the law. And if you get caught with it, we expect our police officers to deal with it,” Hudson said. “If you’re going to smoke marijuana, I don’t care if you smoke it in your house. That’s on you. Just don’t go out in public and be smoking it.”

But James Brown, a Refuge Coffee customer who works with a mentoring program, said that, while he’d hate to see people’s lives derailed by a minor offense like marijuana possession, he doesn’t think marijuana makes their lives better.

“I’m not convinced that marijuana is helpful,” Brown said. “I want to see our people who live in Clarkston be able to assimilate into our culture well and be quality citizens.”

Clarkston’s marijuana regulation isn’t a green light to puff at will. It only applies to offenses handled by city police officers within city limits, and offenders could face more severe consequences if they possess marijuana during the commission of more serious crimes that would be handled in state court.

Under 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. Clarkston’s $75 fine only applies to violations of the city’s ordinance.

Georgia legislators passed a medical marijuana law last year that allows patients to register with the state to possess up to 20 ounces of a limited form of cannabis oil to treat eight illnesses, including cancer, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy. The law doesn’t allow growing or transportation of the drug, creating difficulties for medical marijuana users.

“The ordinance does not ‘legalize marijuana,’ which it clearly could not do under state or federal law,” Nick Genesi, a spokesman for Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens wrote in an email. “No one in Clarkston who is in possession of an ounce or less of marijuana should assume, based on the ordinance alone, that they will only be subject to a fine.”

A poll last year conducted on behalf of Georgians for Freedom in Healthcare found that 49 percent of likely voters said they at least somewhat supported recreational use of marijuana.

Advocates for loosening marijuana laws said Clarkston’s ordinance could become a model for other cities in the state.

“If we can’t do it in state law, we should do it on the local level,” said Dean Sines, deputy director for Peachtree NORML, the Georgia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “This is something people can get involved with at a local level and see a change.”

Back at the Refuge Coffee, no residents interviewed by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution opposed reducing punishments for possession of small amounts of marijuana, but some had mixed feelings.

“There’s bigger fish to fry than marijuana itself,” said Chantela Huff, an assistant manager at a convenience store. “I definitely think it’s normalized.”

Roberto Arena, who works in hotel management, said he’s glad to see attitudes toward marijuana changing in Clarkston and beyond.

“I see people who, just because of a small bag of weed, they’re ruined” when they lose their jobs, he said. “This $75 fine, it’s really a good move.”

News Moderator: Katelyn Baker
Full Article: Marijuana Comes With A Ticket, Not Jail, In City Of Clarkston
Author: Mark Niesse
Contact: AJC
Photo Credit: Tanjila Ahmed
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