Trying to take care of as much business as possible before a new, possibly more conservative commission takes office next year, Athens-Clarke County commissioners pushed through almost 40 agenda items during an epic, nearly six-hour meeting last week.
The commission passed a bike-lane pilot project on Prince Avenue; accepted a clean energy plan; hired a consultant to create an affordable housing strategy; made permanent the downtown “parklet” program created during the pandemic allowing restaurants to use street parking as outdoor dining areas; issued bonds for the Classic Center arena; approved an apartment development on the parking lot behind the Bottleworks; and tabled a request for a frat house in Cobbham. Any of those might have been the lead story in any given week, but not this week—because the commission also passed an ordinance decriminalizing marijuana and a resolution shielding residents from strict abortion laws. And boy, do people have questions.
Is marijuana legal now?
No. What the ordinance does is create a parallel local law where the penalty for possession of less than one ounce is a $35 fine.
Commissioners originally wanted to make the fine $1, but County Attorney Judd Drake told them that citations carry various state-mandated fees totalling $34, so the fine became $35.
So, if it’s just a ticket, the cops can’t arrest me?
Technically, they could. But ACCPD hasn’t been arresting people for marijuana possession since 2019, when the state legalized hemp, because field tests can’t differentiate between legal hemp and illegal marijuana. In addition, local prosecutors have stopped bringing charges in such cases. Still, it probably wouldn’t be wise to walk up to a cop and blow clouds in their face.
It’s also important to note that the ordinance doesn’t apply to other law enforcement agencies, like University of Georgia police or Georgia State Patrol.
What does this mean for my job?
Employers can still require drug tests and fire employees who test positive. Likewise, the ordinance has no impact on any discipline students might face, whether K-12 or at UGA.
Why can’t Athens-Clarke County just legalize it?
Because Peter Tosh isn’t the mayor. Kidding aside, local governments can’t nullify state and federal laws. They can decide not to enforce them, though, which is what ACC is doing in this case, and with abortion.
Right. About that—what’s the status of abortion in Athens?
It’s whatever the state law says, and currently that means most abortions are banned after six weeks. However, the resolution the commission passed prohibits the local government from collecting or sharing any information on abortions or miscarriages, and instructs the county manager to make enforcing abortion laws the lowest possible priority. Separately, District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez has also said she won’t expend any resources prosecuting abortions.
Is Athens the first place that’s done this?
No. Officials in Atlanta and Savannah have said police won’t investigate now-criminalized abortions, and district attorneys in the circuits for Atlanta (Dekalb and Fulton counties), Savannah and Augusta have also said they won’t press charges in such cases. At least nine other Georgia cities have reduced penalties for marijuana possession, including Atlanta, Savannah, Macon and several metro Atlanta suburbs, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).
Did everyone vote for it?
The abortion resolution passed unanimously, but Commissioner Ovita Thornton voted against cannabis decriminalization, stating that she believes marijuana is a gateway drug, and she didn’t think there had been enough community engagement.
Zúñiga vs. Edwards
Occasionally there are commission meetings where the surrealist theater makes onlookers feel like they’re on drugs, and the Aug. 2 meeting was one of those. Public comment went on for nearly two hours. Tears were shed. Bible verses were quoted. Fingers were snapped. Dubious facts were shared. (Did you know LSD is stored in the wisdom teeth?)
The most dramatic moments, though, involved the last speaker of the evening—former mayoral candidate Mara Zúñiga, who revealed that she is an anti-vaxxer and compared wearing a mask to pregnancy.
“You mention something about human rights in the [reproductive rights] resolution and my rights for my body. Well, I’ll tell you, I don’t want vaccines in my body. It’s my body; I don’t want it.
“This is the other thing I don’t want,” Zúñiga continued as she put a surgical mask on her face. “This [the mask] is attached to me like some people say you have the attachment of an embryo. I also don’t want this. So please write in your resolution that this is my body, and I am aborting this mask.” She then took the mask off and threw it behind the rail onto the floor.
Two hours later, during commissioners’ discussion on the abortion resolution, Commissioner Russell Edwards had an equally incendiary rebuke for Zúñiga.
“To have a member of the public who previously ran for mayor come to the podium, proudly claim that she’s unvaccinated during a public health pandemic, and then throw off her mask onto the ground for, I guess, somebody to pick up”—an outraged Edwards then left his seat, picked up Zúñiga’s discarded mask and threw it in the trash—”I mean, how freakin’ crazy and stupid was that?
“I appreciate all of the public who came here tonight and spoke from the podium, but not that one person,” Edwards said, “who threw garbage behind the rail. Let’s have some standards of decency in this democracy.”
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