SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Savannah city council members will soon vote on an ordinance drastically reducing the penalties for being caught with marijuana in the city. Alderman Van Johnson released his proposal Wednesday morning—hoping for a vote in the next month.
The ordinance does not legalize marijuana. It simply decriminalizes it, or reduces the penalty. Alderman Johnson hopes not only that the Savannah city council passes it, but also that other cities in our area do the same.
The idea to decriminalize marijuana in Savannah started back in October when the city of Atlanta made the decision to do so. At that time, Johnson said more than 1700 people had been arrested in the city for having less than an ounce of marijuana.
"In terms of our law enforcement community, it ties them up. It clogs up our courts. When you look at who's being arrested for simple possession which is less than an ounce, it's basically African-Americans, particularly African-American males," Johnson said.
He said those arrests often prevent people from being able to go to school, get a job, or find a place to live. He hopes Savannah passing this ordinance leads to the same for other cities in Chatham County.
"I don't personally use marijuana. I have used marijuana, however, there are people who have, and the fact is, they're still suffering because of mistakes they have made years ago," Johnson said. "This is a way for us to be on the right side of history as we move forward. I'm excited that hopefully Savannah will be positioned to be able to be in that position."
Taking a closer look at Johnson's proposal, the first offense would result in a $150 fine. That's opposed to a $1,000 fine and jail time. The second offense would be a $300 fine. In both instances, the person would not be arrested. Punishment for a third offense would be up to the court. Additionally, 20 percent of the money generated from fines would go back to provide rehab services for people who are caught.
"The goal is really to give people a second chance, but certainly not to say this is the right thing to do," Johnson said.
Clinton Edminster works with a group pushing for decriminalization in Savannah. He's in favor of this change.
"At the end of the day, this is all about lessening the burden on families and individuals who are caught with possession of what I feel and what a bunch of people feel is a harmless amount of marijuana," Edminster said.
Johnson thinks making this change would allow officers to focus more on violent crimes—free from the time-consuming task of booking someone in jail for simple possession.
"If an officer has more time to be engaged in those types of things, to be engaged in patrols, to be engaged on the streets, to respond to shot spotter calls and those types of things, I think that is a much more effective and prudent of our taxpayer dollars," Johnson said.
The first reading of this ordinance will be Dec. 21. Johnson hopes to have a vote at the Jan. 4 council meeting.
Police don't comment on proposed ordinances. However, they said they'll enforce whatever the law is.