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Atlanta City Council puts changes to marijuana law on hold

After more than 90 minutes of debate and no consensus, the Atlanta City Council on Monday put off a vote on a measure that would have eliminated jail time for those caught with small quantities of marijuana.

Advocates of the Atlanta legislation said the move is necessary to address the disproportionate number of black Americans incarcerated because of pot possession.

The proposal, which also would reduce the fine for possession of an ounce or less to a maximum of $75, mirrors actions taken in cities across the nation, including Dallas, Kansas City and St. Louis. In DeKalb County, Clarkson also has reduced penalties.

Between 2014 and 2016, 92 percent of those arrested in Atlanta for possession were African American and 85 percent were male, according to the Racial Justice Action Center in East Point. 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.

“We are here to implore you to understand that your yes vote to this ordinance is a critical step to encouraging the city to treat members of our community like human beings deserving of dignity and respect and not savages who deserve to be thrown in cages for things their white counterparts would not be, ” said Tiffany Roberts, a member of Black Lives Matter Atlanta.

Currently, pot possession in Atlanta carries a fine of up to $1,000 and jail time of as much as six months.

City Councilman Kwanza Hall, who sponsored the legislation, tried to get his colleagues to decide one way or another, fearing delays for more study could become an endless loop.

But Councilman C.T. Martin countered, “It’s very important to get this right. I don’t think we need to be in such a hurry to rush it.”

The Council has held three committee work sessions on the subject and for months advocates have been speaking out at meetings, hoping to persuade council members to back the measure. The Council voted 11-4 to send the proposal back to committee for further study.

Some Council members said they are worried there has not been enough discussion with law enforcement, courts, Atlanta Public Schools and others about the impact of the changes. City officials, including Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields, had planned to have those discussions in early April, but were thwarted when their attention turned to the collapse of a span of Interstate 85 in Buckhead at the end of March.

Mayor Kasim Reed said earlier this month he was unsure he would sign the legislation if it made it to his desk. Reed called pot a “gateway drug,” adding that he’s “following the debate very closely.”

Had the measure been approved, Atlanta would have joined a growing list of cities reducing penalties for small amounts of marijuana.

The city of Clarkston relaxed its marijuana laws in the summer of 2016, lowering the fine for possession of less than an ounce to $75.

Kansas city residents voted overwhelmingly this month to pass a ballot initiative that eliminated jail time for possession of 35 grams or less of marijuana and reduced fines to $25. The city followed similar ordinances already approved in Columbia, Mo., and St. Louis.

Beginning Oct. 1 in Dallas, residents who are caught with fewer than 4 ounces of pot and haven’t committed another crime will no longer be sent to jail.

Some Atlanta council members said they worried that the legislation could send the wrong message to drug users. Changing the penalty to eliminate jail time would not mean marijuana is legal, the members said. Nor would it carry over outside the city limits.

“If they get arrested by somebody else (other than Atlanta Police), they go to jail,” said City Councilwoman Felicia Moore, who supported the proposal.

City Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd said she thinks the move needs to be discussed by Neighborhood Planning Units and possibly voted on in a referendum.

City Councilman Ivory Young, however, said he was not in favor of “adding six months to this process.”

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