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Atlanta City Council considers dumping jail, lower fines for smoking pot

People caught smoking marijuana in the city of Atlanta may not have to do jail time or pay a hefty $1,000 fine if the Atlanta City Council passes a bill under consideration.

After a debate that lasted more than two hours, the council’s safety committee on Tuesday pushed forward legislation that would eliminate jail time for those using the illegal drug and lower the fine for possession to up to $75. Currently possession carries a fine of up to $1,000 and jail time of as much as six months.

While the legislation will get a review by the full council at its April 17 meeting, the committee moved it because some members wanted more feedback from police, judges and health officials.

Advocates, who have been pushing for the change for much of the year, say the move is necessary to address racial disparities in arrests for marijuana use.

Between 2014 and 2016, 92 percent of those arrested for possession were African American and 85 percent were male, according to the office of City Councilman Kwanza Hall, who proposed the legislation. An American Civil Liberties Union analysis of marijuana arrests between 2001 and 2010 found blacks were 3.73 times more likely to be arrested nationally for possession of the drug than whites.

“This is one of many hang ups that get people stuck in our jails,” Hall said. Another candidate for mayor, state Senator Vincent Fort said last year he would seek to decriminalize marijuana possession.

Atlanta mayoral election 2017: List of candidates

The council’s decision comes as the debate over marijuana legalization for medicinal or recreational purposes has gained momentum nationwide. Eight states and Washington, D.C. permit recreational use of pot, though it is still illegal in Georgia.

The state, however, does allow medical marijuana as does more than 20 states and the nation’s capital. On Tuesday, House lawmakers agreed to expand the list of disorders that can be treated under Georgia’s medical marijuana program.

Not all members of the safety committee were bullish Tuesday on pushing the proposed changes forward.

City Councilman Michael Julian Bond said he was conflicted because he doesn’t want to encourage drug use, but agreed that the penalties outweighed the violation. He suggested, however, that $75 may be too low a fine and that jail time could be warranted in some circumstances.

“For me this is an extremely complicated subject,” said Bond, who said he has lost friends to drugs. “I believe as a policy body, we ought not to rush this.”

City Councilwoman Yolanda Adrean said she wanted to wait to get feedback on the impact of the changes from the Atlanta Police Department, the city’s school district and the Concerned Black Clergy of Atlanta.

Ivory Lee Young agreed. He said the council did not want to push this “in the absence of proper analysis.

Hall said he would reach out to public safety officials and others to provide the full council further information about the potential impact of the changes.

“I think we can do this without too much pain to everyone,” he said.

Katrina Taylor Parks, deputy chief of staff for Mayor Kasim Reed, said she would also seek to have a roundtable discussion with safety officials, such as judges and police, before the April 17 council meeting.

“There may be some aspects that we are not aware of that might impact their operations,” she said.

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