ATLANTA -- Of seven bills filed in the state Legislature that would loosen some cannabis laws, only the one dealing with cultivation of medical cannabis has any strength behind it so far.
While this might not be the year it or any of the other marijuana bills pass, some see growing evidence that marijuana isn't the taboo subject it once was.
"I think it's going to crumble eventually. Three years ago I would never have imagined we'd be standing here talking about this issue," said James Bell, director of the Georgia CARE Project, which aims to end all prohibitions on cannabis.
Bell was watching from the back of the room as state Sen. Harold Jones II, D-Augusta, spoke about a bill he has filed that would make all marijuana possession a misdemeanor. If that became law, there would be no felony-level marijuana possession charge, and selling it would remain a felony.
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A former solicitor general of Augusta-Richmond County, Jones has had firsthand experience prosecuting marijuana possession cases. He said punishments for felonies are not just physical prison but also "economic and social prison."
He said people stand to be kicked out of school and lose scholarships, jobs and public benefits over felony marijuana convictions.
"The punishment itself certainly doesn't fit, to lose those types of benefits for marijuana," Jones said.
"Some 20 states treat small amounts of marijuana as just an infraction," he said. "No criminal record at all."
Jones' Senate Bill 254 faces a tight deadline for any activity this year. For it to become law, he would need to build support for such an overhaul by the time the Legislature ends work in late March.
"With any bill, with any major legislation, it takes time," Jones said. "But if it doesn't start at some point in time, we won't go anywhere."
Indeed, speed has not been the word so far on cannabis law changes. Bell has been working on marijuana legalization since the late 1980s, before Jones had even graduated from college.
But at least one related bill is coming down the pipeline. State Rep. Dee Dawkins-Haigler, D-Lithonia, who is chairwoman of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus, is drafting a bill that would make possession of small amounts of marijuana punishable only by a citation.
"So many people, when they are arrested for simple possession of marijuana, it takes away from their livelihood, their ability to be able to go to college and get scholarships, the ability to be able to get jobs. Or if they are working, they may lose their employment," Dawkins-Haigler said.
A national lobbying group that wants to remove jail and heavy fines as punishment for marijuana possession thinks the public is going their way.
"The population doesn't think it's worth the dollars that taxpayers have to spend in order to sustain those types of laws," said Chris Lindsey, senior legislative analyst at the Marijuana Policy Project.
He thinks Georgia eventually will pass the kinds of laws Dawkins-Haigler and Jones are proposing.
But it remains to be seen if those bills will spark a wider conversation this year or if they will start to gather dust along with some other cannabis proposals still in the mix from 2015, the first year of this Legislature's two-year term.
A relatively modest House Bill 283 by state Rep. Stephen Alison, R-Blairsville, would let people who have been convicted of simple marijuana possession keep their driver's licenses. A very broad Senate Resolution 6, by state Sen. Curt Thompson, D-Tucker, would set up a public referendum on marijuana legalization. Neither has moved out of committee.
The only cannabis activity so far this year is a Monday hearing scheduled on a bill that would let the state licence up to six medical cannabis companies. Each could grow the plant and manufacture liquids or pills for patients who have any one of 17 diagnoses.
The bill, by state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, already has the signatures of more than half of state House members. If House Bill 722 passes the House, it would still need to go through the state Senate.
And it lacks the support of Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, who has said he's not sure there's enough of a market for such drugs or whether the state could adequately control the industry.
To contact writer Maggie Lee, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.