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Community needs a smarter solution to marijuana penalties

  • By The Newnan Times-Herald
  • |
  • Nov. 03, 2020 - 4:56 PM

Kudos to the Fayetteville Police Department, which is working to dramatically decrease penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

Under their proposed city ordinance, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana will be prosecuted as a city ordinance violation, and it won’t involve an arrest.

Fayetteville’s move isn’t about creating a recreational marijuana utopia. It’s about establishing appropriate sentencing, a longtime issue with our justice system and evolving marijuana laws.

A quick web search reveals the complicated history of marijuana laws and sentencing in our country.

At the turn of the century, marijuana was legal in the U.S. – although it wasn’t heavily used.

After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, Mexican immigrants flooded into the United States, bringing with them the recreational use of marijuana. The drug became associated with the immigrants, and as a result, fear and prejudice about the newcomers became associated with marijuana.

During the Great Depression, massive unemployment plus the increased public resentment and fear of Mexican immigrants escalated public and governmental concern about the potential problem of marijuana. By 1931, 29 states had outlawed marijuana.

Twenty years later, mandatory sentencing and increased punishment were enacted when the United States Congress passed the Boggs Act of 1952 and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956.

The acts made a first-time cannabis possession offense punishable by two to 10 years in prison with a fine up to $20,000; however, in 1970 Congress repealed mandatory penalties for cannabis offenses.

Current Georgia law stipulates that possession of up to one ounce of cannabis is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a maximum $1,000 fine.

In Coweta, the first offense of misdemeanor marijuana possession is usually punished by a $770 fine, five days of community service, drug and alcohol evaluation and treatment as recommended, and 12 months probation.

Last year, 624 individuals were booked into the Coweta County jail on misdemeanor marijuana charges. And while local law enforcement routinely jails people for misdemeanors, it’s worth noting that something that can land you in jail in Newnan won’t a few miles north in Fairburn.

Fairburn, along with another dozen Georgia communities, has passed local laws reducing the penalty for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana.

Can’t say we’ve ever heard Fairburn referred to as the “Little Amsterdam of the South.”

The criminalization of marijuana also disproportionately affects people of color. According to the ACLU, Black people are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis despite the fact that Black and white people use it at around the same rate.

Having a marijuana conviction on your record can make it difficult to secure and maintain employment, housing and government assistance for the rest of your life.

Ultimately, we believe these revised penalties will help erase the stigma of violating a law that will be evolving for the foreseeable future across our country.

Perhaps one day our community will see the value in not incarcerating people for the nonviolent use of a drug that has either been legalized or decriminalized in the majority of U.S. states.