DeKalb considers cutting penalties for marijuana possession

Jan 23, 2018
DeKalb commissioners are discussing a plan to eliminate jail time as punishment for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana and reducing maximum fines. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

DeKalb County wants to join the cities of Atlanta and Clarkston in decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana, but a change in state law is needed.

Clarkston in 2016 became the first city in Georgia to relax marijuana laws, making possession of less than an ounce of marijuana no longer punishable by jail time. Last year in October, the Atlanta City Council voted unanimously in favor of a similar change, reducing fines for possessing small amounts of marijuana to a maximum of $75 instead of $1,000.

Georgia law gives municipalities the freedom to create local rules for drug-related violations. Now DeKalb wants the General Assembly to give counties the opportunity to create ordinances related to pot possession.

Commissioners said Tuesday that taxpayer dollars are wasted and lives negatively affected when people are prosecuted for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The DeKalb County Board of Commissioners members Mereda Davis Johnson and Kathie Gannon pictured during a 2016 meeting. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM.

“It prohibits them from a lot of opportunities, and jobs are one of those opportunities,” said Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, who sponsored the measure.

Johnson, a Democrat, received a commitment from fellow Commissioner Nancy Jester, a Republican, to work together on the measure.

Outside the boundaries of Atlanta and Clarkston, stricter Georgia laws remain in force. Penalties for marijuana possession in the state max out at six months in jail. Even officers patrolling these cities still could charge violators under the state law with higher penalties.

Although the full DeKalb commission won’t sign off on the proposal for another two weeks, five of seven members were present at Tuesday’s committee meeting where the proposal received an initial vetting. They directed their lobbyist to float the issue among legislators and law enforcement officials to gauge initial reaction.

As the proposal is written now, any county in Georgia would be allowed to create local rules for possession of less than an ounce of pot. But language could be added to make it applicable only to DeKalb if members of the General Assembly indicate that would be more palatable.

Either way, the full legislature’s approval is required because the change is to the Code of Georgia.

Commissioner Kathie Gannon said one of the first questions she faced on the campaign trail was whether she supported decriminalizing marijuana, a concern posed by a constituent who had served on the grand jury and noted the resources used to prosecute these cases.

“All the time and money that the police, the grand jury, the prosecutors are spending on small amounts of marijuana, he said that taxpayer dollars that you could be saving,” Gannon said. “So, I took that to heart.”