A group of state House lawmakers wants to cut the chance of jail time for possession of small amounts of marijuana. The Macon Democrat who’s carrying the bill says she hopes to win over House Republicans with a promise of saving money.
There are two distinctions in the debate over recreational marijuana: legalizing it and decriminalizing it. Legalizing marijuana would effectively treat marijuana just like any other product, though it could still be regulated like cigarettes or alcohol.
Decriminalizing marijuana would not make it legal, but it could mean that people are fined or cited instead of arrested and jailed for carrying small amounts of weed.
That's what state Rep. Miriam Paris is proposing with House Bill 865. She says the bill is not about legalizing marijuana, but about an appropriate punishment for a nonviolent crime.
“It is just making it where we're not sending people to jail, where they have to go and sit just because they can’t make bail or for it,” she said. Her bill says that a possession of up to a half-ounce of marijuana would be punishable by a maximum $300 fine.
Right now, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor and subject to up to a year's imprisonment and up to a $1,000 fine. An ounce or more of marijuana is a felony.
Her bill moves the felony line up to two ounces or more of marijuana. Her bill is identical to Senate Bill 105, which state Sen. Harold Jones II, D-Augusta, carried to state Senate Judiciary Committee approval last year.
On the other side of the Capitol, a panel of state Senators in the Republican-dominated state legislature has already approved the idea of cutting the punishment for up to a half-ounce of weed.
Decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana could save the state a lot of money. An oft-cited study by Harvard economist Jeffrey A. Miron found that enforcing marijuana prohibition costs federal and state governments billions of dollars each year, mostly in dealing with low-level possession offenses.
“A lot of times, these are poor people that are getting caught, same thing, it's just a vicious cycle, when you continue to rack up court fees, bond fees, things like that,” Paris said.
Across the nation, people are changing their minds about marijuana.
According to the latest survey from the Pew Research Center, more than 60 percent of Americans now favor legalizing marijuana throughout the country. That's a massive jump in a relatively short amount of time. In 1990, only about 16 percent of people thought marijuana should be legalized.
Georgians feel a little less strongly about legalizing weed - only about 46 percent of residents thought pot should be legal throughout the state in 2016, according to an AJC poll.
Almost half of U.S. states do not impose jail time for possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use, according to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.
If Paris gets a committee hearing, she said she’s hoping the folks across the aisle will see the savings to the taxpayer. However, the Senate Rules Committee was in no hurry to schedule Jones’ bill for a full Senate floor vote.
His bill sat waiting to be scheduled for about a month as the last legislative session ended. It still hasn’t been scheduled this year.