Continuing the country’s recent pro-marijuana trend, on October 11, the city of Atlanta officially reduced the penalty for “possession of one ounce of marijuana or less” to a maximum fine of $75, and the penalty no longer includes jail time. Atlanta’s new ordinance starkly contrasts the still-existing Georgia state law, which punishes people who commit the same crime―possessing of an ounce of marijuana or less―with a fine of up to $1000 or up to six months in jail.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed cited “the disparity in punishment for possession” of white and black Americans as an impetus for signing the ordinance. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana across the country despite roughly equal usage rates; in Atlanta, 92% of arrests “for marijuana-related offenses are African Americans.” Considering the percentage of impoverished black people in Georgia (23%) is more than two-and-a-half times the percentage of impoverished whites (9%), discriminatory arrests only further the cycle of racial inequality in our state.
Fewer arrests benefit police as well. As the Atlanta Police Department acknowledges, its officers would “rather focus on those committing...violent acts” than people smoking marijuana, and Mayor Reed hopes possession-related arrests, which average 1,000 each year in Atlanta, will decrease. Although some critics believe lenient marijuana laws will have the opposite effect, according to a Drug Policy Alliance 2015 status report, “violent crime rates have declined” in Colorado and Washington State since 2012, when both states legalized recreational marijuana usage in 2012. (Atlanta’s ordinance does not legalize marijuana; it simply reduces the penalty for minor possession.)
Concrete outcomes of marijuana decriminalization in Atlanta will not be understood until later, but many people are rejoicing―especially City Councilmember Kwanza Hall, for whom “reforming the racist marijuana laws on the book in Atlanta” has been a major concern. The Council, which unanimously supported the new ordinance, treated the success with hopeful humor: the day after voting in favor, the Atlanta City Council tweeted its members were “still on a high.”