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Efforts Continue to Legalize or Decriminalize Pot in Athens

While Athens faces a roadblock in marijuana decriminalization efforts, one DeKalb city, Clarkston, is hoping to be the first in the state to do so.

Clarkston city leaders are proposing to punish offenders who possess less than 1 ounce with a fine of as little as $5. Athens-Clarke County Attorney Bill Berryman said recently that a local effort to reduce the penalty for possession to a mere ticket would be illegal because state law supersedes local ordinances. Despite the stall in decriminalization efforts, ACC Commissioner Melissa Link is hopeful that Clarkston’s plan for reform will give Athens officials an idea for how decriminalization will work.

Although Josh Wayne, the founder and president of the Athens chapter of the Campaign for Access, Reform and Education, was hoping for Athens to be the first city in Georgia to decriminalize marijuana, he said he is “hopeful looking to the future of Clarkston.” Athens CARE, a student-run organization on campus that advocates for marijuana reform, is working with lawyers to draft legislation that they believe will decriminalize marijuana.

After the county attorney’s opinion set the group back, member Morgan King said their next step is finding a legal way to reform Athens’ marijuana policy, but their main obstacle is not having any members who are law students or a connection to local lawyers. For that, they are turning to support from Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an international organization that is “pushing for sensible policies to achieve a safer and more just future, while fighting back against counterproductive Drug War policies,” according to the group’s website.

Jeremy Sharp, a board member for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said finding a legal solution for decriminalization in Athens has been difficult due to the limits the Georgia Constitution places on cities and counties’ lack of leeway on criminal sanctions. Sharp said they are looking for ways to circumvent this. “The goal is to get around it and draft a bill that can be used as a model for Athens and other cities in Georgia,” he said.

Meanwhile, Wayne said their focus is on educating students on campus and increasing support for drug reform.

Wayne also said he is not waiting for Gov. Nathan Deal to address this issue because Wayne doesn’t believe he is willing to move forward with any legislation on decriminalization. While Deal signed a medical marijuana bill last year, he resisted efforts to strengthen it in the most recent session and has said he doesn’t want to see Georgia become Colorado, where the drug is legal.

King said she is also disappointed with Mayor Denson’s lack of action. (Denson has said she supports legalizing or decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.) “We’ve given her plenty of opportunities to speak out about it,” King said. “I don’t see anything that she’s done to help us. She might have said she supported it while she was running, but that doesn’t mean anything.”

Follow the Money

Decriminalization could be another step toward legalization. Other than the medical benefits of using marijuana—a common reason cited by reform supporters—the economic benefits are undeniable, at least in the case of Colorado.

In February 2014, the second month after recreational use was legalized, the state collected $3.2 million in tax revenue. A year later, that revenue increased to $7.8 million for the month, and in February 2016, it was $12.8 million. Alcohol is taxed by volume, not price, so it is difficult to compare to marijuana’s 27.9 percent sales tax rate, but by June 2015 recreational marijuana brought in more tax revenue than alcohol sales, according to a Forbes article. There’s also evidence that legal marijuana is boosting tourism, with almost half of those surveyed by the Colorado Tourism Office saying it influenced their choice of destination.

Of course, Colorado has different demographics than Georgia, and Colorado is not an exact predictor of the potential economic effect legalization could have on Georgia. However, supporters think merely decriminalization could have an effect on the local economy.

Legalizing marijuana because of the economic impact it could have is a “no-brainer,” Sharp said. However, he believes the economic advantage of decriminalization is less clear cut. Although the state will save money by imprisoning fewer people, and police will be able to spend more time on other duties, it will cost the state in other ways, he said. “Misdemeanors have turned into cash cows,” he said, due to the fines for marijuana possession.

If decriminalization efforts succeed in Athens, fewer people would be imprisoned, which will not only decrease jail costs but also allow people to be hired or get better jobs, King said. “We have one of the worst poverty rates in Georgia, and I think just getting people out of jail could help the economy,” she said.

Link also believes this will improve the lives of those in poverty. In visiting neighborhoods in her central Athens district, Link said she has met “dozens who have felony records for minor drug possession” and are unable to get a job due to their criminal record. “It has clearly devastated communities,” she said. “When you have a felony on your record you are much less likely to get a job, not to mention defending yourself in court could be unaffordable.”