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Should you be jailed for weed? Supporters, critics speak out on plan to reduce penalties in Macon

Bibb County sheriff gives a demonstration after proposed marijuana ordinance

"How many joints can you roll with almost an ounce of pot?" Sheriff David Davis talks in a video posted to the Bibb County Sheriff's Office Facebook page about the proposed ordinance for the decriminalization of less than an ounce of marijuana.
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"How many joints can you roll with almost an ounce of pot?" Sheriff David Davis talks in a video posted to the Bibb County Sheriff's Office Facebook page about the proposed ordinance for the decriminalization of less than an ounce of marijuana.

About 40 people came out Tuesday for a public hearing on a proposed ordinance that would give Macon-Bibb County sheriff’s deputies the option of handing out a $75 citation if a person is caught with less than an ounce of marijuana, instead of stiffer penalties.

The majority of people who spoke were in favor of the new ordinance. There also were representatives from organizations such as Reform Georgia and the local chapters of the National Action Network and NAACP.

Among officials there were Bibb County Solicitor-General Rebecca Grist, District Attorney David Cooke and Sheriff David Davis.

“We have been in a constant campaign for this to take place all over the U.S.,” said Sarah Hunt, president of the Middle Georgia chapter of the National Action Network.

Backers of the proposal say they want to minimize damage caused if someone is forced to pay a large fine, spend time in jail or deal with probation because of a small amount of pot.

Several people spoke about how young black people are disproportionately charged with marijuana possession.

Cooke said paying a minor fine means a person is less likely to get on the “treadmill of probation.”

“They’re less likely to be booked in jail,” he said. ‘They’re less likely to come back. Because once you set foot in jail, you’re many times more likely to come back to jail.”

The ordinance would not mean that marijuana is legal, but would instead treat possession more like a speeding ticket. The maximum penalty under state law for misdemeanor marijuana possession is a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

One person who questioned lessening the penalty was Macon resident Ken Smith. The $75 fine would be cheaper than what many people pay for a traffic violation, he said. Plus there are many instances where people charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession already have a criminal history, Smith added.

“We’ve got much worse problems in this town then getting marijuana where you can just walk around with it,” he said.

Another resident, Joe Powell, asked if the law was passed then what would be the incentive for people to not begin using more marijuana and other drugs.

Davis said his deputies already have the discretion to give out a citation for simple marijuana possession.

“We are committed to do what we can to enforce the laws... to enforce laws in such a way that is sensible and will not create a lasting effect on someone’s future, especially for something as minor as this,” Davis said.

There’s usually the opportunity for pre-trial diversion for first-time offenders, Grist said.

“I am fine if we have this county code violation,” she said. “I’m not objecting to it. Just understand state law exists and there are cases that (still) have be cases handled under state law.”

The ordinance would not decriminalize marijuana, and people could still be at risk of being arrested, Georgia Reform Executive Director Maxwell Ruppersburg said.

“Ultimately what we’re taking about is a harm-reduction ordinance; limiting the number of people that need to come in contact with the criminal justice system for a personal activity,” he said.

There are other cities or counties in Georgia that have decriminalized marijuana possession, including Atlanta, Savannah and Fulton County.

“Time is up for Macon-Bibb for being behind in the times,” Teresa Southern said. “Time is also up for the young men down on Oglethorpe Street who are sitting behind bars today because they have been on the other side of this.”

Commissioner Al Tillman, one of the four co-sponsors of the ordinance, said he will try to get it added on the May 21 County Commission agenda.

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