From the state Capitol to city streets, marijuana is definitely on Georgia’s mind.
As many as 71 percent of Georgians support some form of cannabis legalization, and even our friends at High Times have singled out the Peach State as the next possible frontline for full legalization. While opponents try to denounce legal cannabis as a pet project of progressives, the issue crosses the political aisle in huge numbers: Another recent poll reports that 77 percent of Republican voters back medical marijuana and its cultivation in Georgia.
Nevertheless, so far advocates have only seen seen small victories like low-THC medical cannabis expansion bills for PTSD and chronic pain sufferers as neighboring South Carolina advances its own medical marijuana proposal.
But those in support of cannabis acceptance in Georgia are finding success in their communities—at the grassroots level, if you will. According to Georgia law, possession of under an ounce of cannabis is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1000 fine—yet the law also allows cities, counties and other municipalities to draft their own ordinances that eliminate arrests and jail time, reducing the penalties for possession to a fine—comparable to a jaywalking ticket.
No, it’s not legalization, or even decriminalization, technically, since the implementation is at the discretion of law enforcement. But it’s a start, and reducing criminal penalties has far-reaching social and economic effects for citizens of color—particularly African Americans, who are four times more likely to be arrested for simple cannabis possession that their white neighbors, even though usage rates in these sub-populations are basically the same. This disparity allows some to skirt jail time while cutting others off from educational, economic and employment opportunities.
More and more Georgia cities are choosing to correct this injustice by passing their own ordinances. In July 2016, Clarkston became the first municipality in Georgia to pass an amended cannabis possession ordinance, reducing the penalty for the misdemeanor to a $75 fine with no jail time. In 2017, the city of Atlanta—with a population of almost a half million—passed a similar law.
Our hometown of Savannah approved an ordinance on March 1 of this year that carries a $150 for simple cannabis possession, with 20 percent of collected fines allotted to a fund for drug abuse services. The Atlanta suburb of South Fulton is the latest to adopt lighter marijuana punishments in the name of criminal justice reform. Many council members who vote in favor of the issue cite keeping people out of prison for a harmless mistake as their primary motivation—not marijuana legalization—and support continues to be bi-partisan.
Reform Georgia is a newly-formed organization that aims to educate and empower other Georgia communities to adopt similar legislation through their local governments. By providing materials and information on best practices in a free resource toolkit, the group is cultivating a coalition throughout out the state, from urban centers and suburbs to rural areas and burgeoning municipalities. Even for those still uncomfortable with cannabis’ increasing acceptance in American culture, decreasing the penalty for simple possession is an undeniable opportunity to set a new standard for racial and social equality and to create a potential revenue stream.
The ultimate goal for Reform Georgia is restorative justice—retroactively releasing those currently in jail for simple possession and expunging the records of those convicted in the past.
“As more states reap the benefits of legal cannabis for medical and recreational use, in Georgia we can begin with reducing harm to our local communities,” says Maxwell Ruppersburg, Reform Georgia’s acting policy advisor.
“The morality is on the side of decriminalization.”
Reform Georgia is in the process of obtaining official non-profit status and will launch its new website and materials in the next few weeks. If you’d like to receive an update, like Reform Georgia on Facebook.