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Atlanta City Council Delays Vote on Pot Decriminalization — Again

Over 90 percent of those arrested for pot possession in Atlanta between 2014 and 2016 were African-American. (Photo by Christina Hempfling/EyeEm/Getty Images)

Efforts to decriminalize pot possession in the City of Atlanta have been stifled yet again.

Atlanta City Council members on Monday, April 17, voted 10-4 to send a proposal about decriminalizing the drug back to the Public Safety Committee for further discussion, local station CBS 46 reported. Members argued they didn’t have enough time to consider the measure with Mayor Kasim Reed’s administrative team nor the city’s legal staff and law enforcement committee.

“We went on recess [and] then a bridge collapsed,” council President Ceasar Mitchell told the Atlanta Business Chronicle, pointing to the massive fire and collapse of the I-85 bridge over Piedmont Road late last month. “We have all these issues that have taken up the administration’s attention.”

The change, proposed by Atlanta Councilman Kwanzaa Hall, would allow persons caught with an ounce or less of marijuana in their possession to be let off with a $75 citation rather than face criminal charges and/or possible jail time. Under the state’s current law, pot possession can land you a maximum 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Supporters of the proposed measure argued that the law, as it stands, disproportionately affects the poor, and African-American and Latino residents. They said eliminating jail time for marijuana possession would help trim the number of Blacks and Latinos sent to jail.

According to statistics, African-Americans comprise 76 percent of those incarcerated for pot-related offenses in the state of Georgia, compared to just 21 percent of whites. A whopping 92 percent of people arrested for possession in Atlanta between 2014 and 2016 also were African-American, although Blacks make up just 53 percent of the city’s population.

“We’re not legalizing marijuana,” Councilman Hall said of Ordinance 17-O-1152. “We’re not even decriminalizing it. We’re trying to reclassify it and create a new pathway … to prevent people from going into the criminal justice system.”

Atlanta resident Nigel O’Rear agreed that the current punishments for pot possession are a bit harsh.

“That really can impact your ability to get hired and, ultimately, your life,” O’Rear said. “So, getting rid of that, I think, will prevent a lot of people from getting put into a system that otherwise they would not be going into.”

Votes on the measure to reform Atlanta’s pot laws have been delayed multiple times in recent months. In mid-February, the council declined to vote on the proposed bill but rather chose to hold a work session to discuss it in further detail. Similar work sessions had been pushed back two times before, further stalling a vote.

Support for the marijuana law amendment was bolstered by the fatal shooting of 24-year-old Deaundre Phillips by Atlanta police in January. Authorities said they found Philips asleep in his car, which reportedly reeked of weed. When they tried to approach him, the young man tried to flee, prompting the officer to shoot.

“Why should we have to wait? How many more people have to die before you people on City Council take action?” resident Dan Steede asked the committee at a February meeting where they declined to vote on the measure. “Today, not tomorrow, not one more minute, not one more life.”

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