Marijuana Possession Decriminalized in Atlanta, Resulting in Small Fine

Atlanta City Council measure to remove jail time for minor marijuana possession awaits Mayor’s signature.

The Atlanta City Council unanimously voted this past week to decriminalize marijuana. The new policy eliminates jail time for individuals caught with less than an ounce of marijuana.

This change couldn’t have happened sooner for residents in Atlanta. Arrests for marijuana possession are on the rise again in the U.S. after a decade of decline, and in Atlanta, like in much of the U.S., minorities are affected the most by America’s punishing drug laws. In 28 states, you can still be sent to jail for basic possession of marijuana.

City Council members voted 15-0 in favor of decriminalizing marijuana Monday. The bill now awaits Mayor Kasim Reed’s signature. Mr. Reed, a Democrat, tweeted Monday evening that he intends to sign the bill into law.

Introduced in March by Councilman Kwanza Hall, the decriminalization bill significantly reduces penalties for individuals caught with under an ounce of marijuana. Individuals caught with up to an ounce of marijuana currently face up to six months behind bars and being fined up to $1,000 under Georgia state law. Atlanta’s decriminalization measure would eliminate the possibility of jail time and reduce any potential fines to a maximum of $75.

Roughly nine out of 10 people arrested and charged with possession in Atlanta between 2014 and 2016 were African-African, according to the Racial Justice Action Center. This is despite the fact that marijuana use is statistically as popular with whites as blacks. Councilman Hall calls Atlanta’s arrest rates “the most biased rate of arrests in the country.”

Atlanta’s City Council members see this relaxed new policy as a way to remove this unfair racial bias in their city’s marijuana arrests. “Currently, we are seeing families torn apart. We’re seeing young people lose their scholarships, we’re seeing people become unemployable, all because of possession of less than an ounce. And primarily the neighborhoods, the ZIP codes, the people are people of color living in parts of our city that have been left behind, that have been neglected, and they are being penalized greater than anyone else,” Hall told V-103, a CBS-owned radio station.

It’s important to note that this change in Atlanta’s policy doesn’t make it legal to possess marijuana. It also won’t override the fact that outside Atlanta city limits, Georgia penalties for possession of marijuana include a 6-month jail term and fine of up to $1,000.

“If you get arrested by anybody but a city cop, you’re toast,” Atlanta City Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean said during a council safety committee meeting in April. That is because the state of Georgia hasn’t legalized recreational marijuana. The decriminalization of weed simply means that possession of the drug no longer leads to jail time. Without full legalization, weed is still an illicit substance that you can’t buy, grow, or sell.

Georgia also isn’t among the 29 states and counting where physicians can legally recommend medical marijuana to patients who are afflicted with certain conditions. However, the state has passed a strict CBD-only bill that caps THC – the chemical in marijuana that gets users high – at 5 percent.

While a few states like Nevada, Colorado, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington have legalized recreational cannabis, a handful of major cities in states without recreational marijuana laws — including Dallas, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Kansas City, and Nashville — have separately approved legislation in the last several years decriminalizing possession similar to the effort passed by the Atlanta City Council this week.

“Today we stand with every parent of Atlanta who is fearful of seeing or has seen their children’s lives destroyed, or careers ruined, because of a racist policy that unjustly incarcerated minorities by more than 90 percent,” Hall said following the bill’s passage Monday.

You can find more information on marijuana laws in the U.S. on our education page, or stay up-to-date with the cannabis industry on our news feed.