Ordinance lessens pot penalties in Atlanta

Ordinance lessens pot penalties in Atlanta

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - The consequences of getting high are now a lot lower in the city of Atlanta.

The city's mayor has signed an ordinance that lessens the penalty for possession. What that means is that if someone is caught with less than an ounce of marijuana, it's now a fine instead of time. It's still illegal, as the change in Atlanta does not make it legal to possess it. For the rest of the state, penalties include a six-month jail term and a fine of up to $1,000.

A serious problem the city of Atlanta identified is that a small amount of marijuana was costing some kids their entire future. Stakes are still high for the rest of the state, however. Some believe they are too high.

"Somebody is smoking weed on their porch. Now, they get arrested and thrown into the system. It's so hard to get out of that. Once you're in it, you are roped in," said Clinton Edminister, Georgia CARE Project Organizer.

In Savannah alone, there have been more than 1,110 misdemeanor arrests and 300 felony charges in the past two years - a number of arrests the Georgia CARE Project says has propelled action.

"People are starting to realize we've got the power to make the change as people...as city council members," Edminister said.

Savannah City Manager Rob Hernandez says he supports the idea of no jail time for these small crimes. He believes it helps individuals avoid life-affecting charges to a relatively petty offense. However, that's not to say an individual won't have consequences for their actions. He also believes Atlanta's fine of $75 is too low. He's been through this before while in office in Florida and believes a higher fine, community service hours, or enrollment in a substance abuse program is more effective - all without jail time or criminal charges.

"I would love for them to have the debate about whether it needs to be $250 or $150 or $75. The important thing is that they recognize that the law needs to change and they don't need to be incarcerating citizens for low-level possession," said Maxwell Ruppersburg, Director of Communications, GA CARE Project.

For now, Hernandez says decriminalization is not on the city's radar. Still, the Georgia CARE Project says the domino effect has begun and the jurisdictions around Atlanta will be the first to jump on board. They're close in proximity and will get fed up quickly. The end goal? State decriminalization, but that's a heavy load.

"They're not going to be interested in doing so until they see pressure from constituents around the state. By taking it to the city level, we can show them, if you're not ready to make these changes, we will make them happen locally and it will become such a pressing issue. They will have to act," Ruppersburg said.

The current Atlanta ordinance does not show any indication of a limit on the number of times a person can be fined for possession of marijuana before the fines become an arrest.

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