Opinion Columns & Blogs

Where there’s this kind of smoke, there’s no use getting all fired mad on punishment

Georgia law prohibits the possession of marijuana regardless of the amount and provides for up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $1,000 for personal possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. A proposed Macon-Bibb County ordinance regarding marijuana does not authorize or even “decriminalize” personal marijuana use, as only the state can do that Instead, it changes the community’s recommended response to those who are caught with less than one ounce for personal consumption. It represents an acknowledgment that throwing the book at young people or adults for this kind of activity is not going to help them or make our community any safer. For this reason, advocates who are supporting the measure are calling it a “harm reduction ordinance.”

Low-level marijuana arrests rarely improve public safety but they do expend officers’ time, add to administrative workloads and use up county resources that could otherwise be directed toward addressing more serious problems. It is likely for these reasons that sheriff, district attorney and solicitor general have all expressed their support for this harm reduction ordinance. Under the proposed ordinance,violators of the ordinance still face a $75 fine, a fine similar to a traffic violation, and that increases if they are caught again.

Data received from the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office on those currently incarcerated for marijuana charges in the Bibb jail indicates that 70% of those incarcerated on misdemeanor charges are black, while only 54% of the county population is black. The arrest and incarceration of Macon-Bibb residents for marijuana-related charges disproportionately affects the black community, despite rates of use being equal among black and white Americans. The proposed change to the ordinance would provide relief to the city employees dealing with these arrests and incarcerations and help ease racial disparities in the punishment of petty misdemeanor offenses.

This is local criminal justice reform at its best. Common sense rules will make sure that individuals caught in this situation are not subjected to over-the-top regulations and punishments that will affect them for the rest of their lives. The proposed harm reduction ordinance will free up law enforcement so that they can spend more time on violations and crimes that are truly affecting the quality of life for those that call Macon-Bibb their home. It is for these reasons that over 10 other Georgia jurisdictions have already implemented a similar change, including Atlanta, South Fulton, Savannah and Statesboro. We ask that Mayor Robert Reichert and our County Commissioners approve this measure and add Macon-Bibb County to that list.