Clarkston is poised to become the first Georgia city to decriminalize marijuana.
Georgia has received a lot of praise, including from President Barack Obama, for its criminal justice reform, yet Gov. Nathan Deal continues to resist changes to marijuana laws.
“We should not have any municipality or jurisdiction of state government saying that they’re willing to flaunt the law to downgrade or excuse what is otherwise criminal conduct,” Gov. Deal told WABE. “I do not approve of that and I do not agree with the posture they are apparently trying to take.”
Clarkston will be fielding the proposal in a full city council meeting May 3. The measure already made it through the public safety committee in April, with the backing of Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry.
“We need to be focusing on stopping violent crimes, stopping burglaries, and making our streets safer. Focusing on these low level, non-violent offenses just drains resources,” Terry said in an interview with GBP last month.”And it also — it quite frankly ruins a lot of people’s lives.”
Medical marijuana has gained traction under the Gold Dome, although moves to expand the conditions eligible and allow in-state cultivation were killed this year. Medical marijuana-centric legislation, however, is by no means a complete solution. It leaves behind communities of color that are disproportionately arrested for possession, despite the fact that marijuana usage rates are nearly identical across racial groups.
In Georgia, 64% of the people arrested for marijuana possession are African American, although African Americans make up only 30.5% of the state’s population. The Sentencing Project puts this in perspective:
The dramatic escalation of incarceration for drug offenses has been accompanied by profound racial/ethnic disparities. Overall, two-thirds of persons incarcerated for a drug offense in state prison are African American or Latino. These figures are far out of proportion to the degree that these groups use or sell drugs. A wealth of research demonstrates that much of this disparity is fueled by disparate law enforcement practices.
In effect, police agencies have frequently targeted drug law violations in low-income communities of color for enforcement operations, while substance abuse in communities with substantial resources is more likely to be addressed as a family or public health problem.
Georgia is working to improve the lives of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, by investing in schools in prisons, lifting the ban on receiving food stamps for drug offenders, and investing more in accountability courts.
But diverting people from the criminal justice system in the first place is the most straightforward way to address the need for reform.
“I think that if he stopped for a minute and looked at the evidence, and past the political rhetoric, he will see that this policy can only strengthen his criminal justice reform legacy,” said Terry.
If Clarkston takes this step, it sounds like Gov. Deal won’t put up too much of a fight, despite his opposition.
“I don’t think it’s necessary for the legislature to take action on that,” Gov. Deal said. “I think state and federal law enforcement officers will take care of that without us intervening.”
Gov. Deal and the General Assembly have stepped up and made strategic decisions around criminal justice reform, whatever their own beliefs may have been. It’s time to set aside personal feelings and address marijuana usage use with the same practical approach. Georgia doesn’t need to keep locking folks up for such minor infractions, and Clarkston is poised to lead the way.