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Clarkston to consider decriminalizing marijuana

Clarkston leaders may try to make their city the first in Georgia to decriminalize marijuana.

Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry said the City Council’s public safety committee this month will review whether to make possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana a ticket-only offense, putting it on the same level as a run-of-the-mill traffic violation. He expects the full council to bring it to a vote as early as May.

“The bottom line is the War on Drugs has failed,” said Terry, also a vice chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia. “It is time for elected officials to use evidence-based policies to make our communities safer and fight drug abuse.”

Other Georgia cities have flirted with the idea, but they’ve failed to gain traction. An effort in Athens sputtered recently when the city attorney concluded that state laws that make possession of the drug a misdemeanor crime take precedence over local ordinances.

Terry said his city is prepared to argue that it has “concurrent jurisdiction” with the state over low-level drug offenses. Clarkston’s plan would lay out a fee schedule that could charge as little as $5 in Municipal Court for the first offense.

At least 18 states and dozens of cities, including Detroit, New York and Philadelphia, have passed ordinances to make possessing small amounts of marijuana a noncriminal offense. But the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a marijuana rights advocacy group, said it knows of no Georgia city with such a formal policy.

Paul Armentano, NORML’s deputy director, said the citation-only policies allow local authorities to “reprioritize resources” away from marijuana possession toward more serious crimes.

The reception it faces among Georgia’s leaders is a different story.

Georgia lawmakers have passed legislation that diverts more low-level drug offenders from lengthy prison sentences and legalized the use of a form of medical marijuana. But Gov. Nathan Deal has firmly opposed an expansion that would allow the in-state cultivation of the drug and said repeatedly it should be left to Congress, and not the state, to make broader changes to marijuana policy.

“We want to find a pathway to bring our children home from Colorado without becoming Colorado,” Deal said in his 2015 State of the State speech, referring to families that have taken their children to the Western state that has legalized marijuana so they can use the drug to treat ailments, particularly seizures. It’s a line the governor has repeated several times since.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigations declined to comment on the Clarkston proposal.

There are legal questions about whether state law gives the DeKalb County city the authority to decriminalize the drug. Bill Berryman, the Athens-Clarke County attorney who vetted the idea for his County Commission, said in an interview that his interpretation of the law gives the General Assembly the final say over local governments on issues involving controlled substances.

The mayor of Clarkston, a city with a long progressive streak, seems willing to test that theory. Terry was one of the most outspoken opponents of Deal’s attempt to halt Syrian refugees from resettling in Georgia, and the city of roughly 8,000 has become a home for immigrants fleeing persecution or war from around the globe.

“Hopefully, the Legislature will applaud local control and home rule powers being used innovatively to address a major injustice in the judicial system,” Terry said, “and not try to pre-empt this next session.”

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