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Bill Torpy at Large: Clarkston taking the lead on weed? It’s high time

Clarkston’s effort to decriminalize pot has Gov. Nathan Deal and the state’s chief law enforcement officers tsk-tsking because that’s what governors and chief law enforcement people figure they must do when it comes to “drugs.”

Drugs are bad. Marijuana is a gateway drug. Guys who smoke too much weed will grow man boobs. You’ve heard the Reefer Madness excuses before.

But Clarkston’s on to something.

Arresting people for possession of small amounts of marijuana — less than an ounce — is a crime in and of itself. It’s an inane use of government resources and brands people with a big green leafy M, one that will follow them for years and continually close doors to them.

Clarkston is a different sort of place, a town where I saw three separate women carrying groceries on their heads during a short visit. It has became Ground Zero for the refugee resettlement debate in an era when many Americans have hardened their outlooks on immigration.

But Clarkston is not swimming upstream on the question of marijuana decriminalization. In fact, its effort is in line with where the public is on the issue. Punishing pot users is increasingly unAmerican.

A Gallup poll last year found that 58 percent of Americans support legalization (not just decriminalization) of pot. In the late 1990s, it was 25 percent.

That 58 percent for legalization ranges from a 71 percent from young adults to 35 percent for those older than 65. Politicians, being follow-the-herd types, will listen to the older demographic because they vote.

In Georgia, legalization is about 50-50, according to a poll conducted for the AJC last year.

Increasingly, America is telling The Man to mellow out.

And Clarkston is listening. The City Council is considering a fine as low as $5 for possession of small amounts of pot. That’s what a party-size bag of Cheetos costs.

Councilman Dean Moore came up with the idea when the city discussed doing away with the check box on job applications that asks applicants whether they’ve been arrested. In the process, they found that Mickey Mouse pot arrests often bump people out of the running for getting hired.

If the discussion I attended at City Hall is an indication, then council members are still grappling with exactly what they want to do. They’re leaning toward some sort of city ticket that would stay in-house and not become part of the state crime record database that will come back to bite you later in life.

And a lot of people get bitten. In 2013 alone, Georgia had 35,305 misdemeanor possession cases, a 10 percent increase from 2009, according to the GBI.

Municipalities like the fines that pot arrests can generate.

“It’s a license to steal money,” said Walker Chandler, an attorney and former Libertarian candidate for lieutenant governor, to the City Council. “Clarkston has the opportunity to say, ‘We’re not that kind of place.’ “

Chandler has argued for legalization for decades. His business card opens up to display rolling papers. He got the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a Georgia law that made political candidates pee in cups.

Later, he told me, “What they’re really doing is they’re trying to send a message to the rest of the state: A $5 fine says, ‘This is bull shoot.’”

Clarkston Police Chief Christine Hudson said the city is already pretty much doing what the council wants. She said her officers made 77 misdemeanor pot arrests the past two years, with 38 of the arrestees getting released on city ordinances, which means “you were not taken to jail, you were not arrested.”

Fifteen of those 77 were also arrested on other state offenses (like battery), so the pot charges can’t be separated out. And 24 others were taken to the DeKalb County jail because they were untruthful or had some other issue with police.

But the chief seems caught betwixt and between: “I don’t know what they’re trying to pass,” she said of her political bosses. “They can’t supersede state law.”

J. Tom Morgan, who used to be DeKalb’s DA, now defends scores of young people on pot charges. He said cops all over metro Atlanta are using a de facto version of decriminalization.

Often, he said, police will run a quick rap sheet on the person caught with pot and if no other charges are found on his record, they’ll charge the person with a local disorderly conduct citation, which is less likely to harm the person’s job prospects down the line.

But that depends on many factors: The cop, the jurisdiction, the mood of the officer, what color you are or even how close it is to the end of an officer’s shift.

“That’s why it needs to be a policy, so it’s exercised fairly,” Morgan said.

One day, it will be. But in the meantime, tens of thousands Georgians this year will get an “M” stamp and an uncertain future.

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