Lost among the aftermath of this year’s election are the significant marijuana policy victories in Arkansas, North Dakota, Montana and Florida. These states took big steps to ensure their citizens have quality access to the medicinal marijuana.
As we see a positive shift in opinion across the nation, some here are wondering why Georgia hasn’t joined in on the state level conversation about medical marijuana.
Instead of progress, we continue to see gridlock on the issue in Georgia, as Southern states like Florida are moving forward with common-sense advances in marijuana policy. Georgia’s slow track to medical marijuana legalization is highlighted by the passing of Haleigh’s Hope Act back in 2015 which was intended to give patients that have certain ailments safe access to low-THC cannabinoid oil. But Haleigh”s Hope has failed to make much of a difference in the lives of Geogia patients.
But passage of Haleigh’s Hope has spurred municipal leaders to take action where our state leaders are failing to move. The conversation among public officials continues thanks, in part, to State Senator Vincent Fort, who vows to decriminalize marijuana in Atlanta if elected mayor.
“Oftentimes there are racial disparities in criminal justice systems,” says Sen. Fort, “When you realize that an arrested conviction of that sort can cause any number of problems including making it more difficult to get into college, applying for scholarships and getting certain professional licenses, decriminalization is a part of the process of dealing with this situation.”
Sen. Fort has an impressive track record of pushing for criminal justice reform in Fulton County and his push for decriminalization is the next logical step.
While those in the public eye like Sen. Fort push for decriminalization, other local reform organizations are in the fight too. Georgia C.A.R.E Project (Campaign for Access, Reform and Education) has partnered with two other organizations (Peachtree NORML and Students for Sensible Drug Policy) for a City-By-City Initiative (Google Doc) to lobby for decriminalization across our state.
The initiative titled An Activist’s Guide to Local Reform calls for individuals to get involved in reform and advises them to take action by contacting legislators in an effort to push for decriminalization in their cities. Focusing more on harm reduction and less on legalization, the initiative is the first of its kind. The first municipality on the list is Athens-Clarke County; where activists have been working for more than two years to get the ordinance passed.
“[Decriminalization] in Atlanta will encourage other cities to do the same,” says James Bell, Director of Ga C.A.R.E, “Cities can undermine the state laws and send a message that we no longer want to destroy lives over a plant.”
Clarkston, one of Georgia’s most diverse cities has already taken the issue head-on and is leading the fight in local ordinance for decriminalization. With full support from Mayor Ted Terry, Clarkston has reduced the fine for possession of marijuana under an ounce from $1,000 to only $75. The ordinance also eliminates the possibility of serving jail time for a non-violent drug offense, which would relieve some of the systemic racial injustice in Georgia. According to a 2013 ACLU study, blacks are disproportionately targeted for drug-related crimes as they are 3.7 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.
With growing support from local officials in conjunction with the City-By-City Initiative, the path for medical legalization and access in Georgia is well under way. Public opinion has shifted tremendously, as 62% of Ga. voters want to see the drug decriminalized. With grassroots organizations making the way for the path, city-wide decriminalization is the first step of the legalization process. Decriminalizing will serve as a main cornerstone of safe access and reform for the state — not to mention the money it will save taxpayers by freeing up the city’s jails.
Not all crimes are created equal and it’s obvious to most Georgians that someone caught in possession of marijuana doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with violent criminals.