Cannabis Decriminalization in the Deep South

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This entry has been published on June 16, 2022 and may be out of date.
Georgia’s SSDP Chapters One Step Closer to Passing States Most Important Cannabis Decriminalization Ordinance in Athens, Ga.

   June 13, 2022:  Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) is proud to announce, on Thursday, June 9th at 1pm in City Hall, the Athens-Clarke County Legislative Review Committee (“LRC”) unanimously voted (5-0) in favor of Georgia’s most comprehensive marijuana decriminalization ordinance.

(SSDP smiling after LRC votes)

When enacted, the ordinance would reduce the penalties for possession of misdemeanor amounts of marijuana (defined as less than 28 grams) by making such infractions a 1$ fine.  Language included in the ordinance elaborates the city’s definition of marijuana to include THC cartridges, THC Vapes, THC Concentrates, and THC Containing edibles as Marijuana. Making possessing under 28 grams of any marijuana product a civil infraction. The ordinance would solidify already common practices by the District Attorney and Athens Clarke County Police not to prosecute or arrest citizens; 19 other municipalities across Georgia have already passed similar ordinances.

SSDP’s Role:  This victory is the result of years of advocacy in Georgia, and SSDP’s recent victory is due to work by SSDPers at the University of Georgia. Since 2017, UGA’s SSDP Chapter Leaders Janis Yoon (16), Zane Bader (15), Jordan Hobney (14), Nathan Wisserman (18), Josh Wayne (15), and Raiden Washington (21) have been lobbying Athens Clarke county to reduce penalties for cannabis possession.

(SSDP UGA Lobbies Athens Clarke County Commissioners. Spring, 2018)

UGA SSDP’s current President (and SSDP National’s Board VP), Raiden Washington (they/them) has taken up the torch this semester at UGA SSDP, and they have been working tirelessly to continue the great work of Georgia’s Cannabis Advocates at UGA Law School. Since the beginning of the spring semester, Raiden (pictured to the left) has been making appointments and establishing meetings with County Commissioners pushing Athens Clarke County to address criminal justice reform by pursuing the state’s most comprehensive Cannabis Decriminalization Policy. Raiden has been working with community stakeholders like Franny’s Pharmacy (A Local CBD shop) , the Public Defender’s Office, and Access Point (a local Syringe Exchange) to get their input at community meetings on this issue. Raiden has organized on campus petition drives, tabling in the commons area at UGA, made alliances with other student groups, and their chapter has successfully hosted panels featuring community stakeholders and local elected officials to address cannabis decriminalization in  Athens.

Several meetings took place before the LRC. SSSP was able to bring together community stakeholders and local officials before the legislative review committee to hatch out a plan of attack. Each person chose a topic to speak about ranging from criminal justice reform to the endocannabinoid system. The Commissioners heard the cannabis issue first, and public testimony began promptly at 1 pm in a very official looking boardroom on the second floor of the Athens-Clarke County City Hall. SSDP Student leaders from SSDP at University of Georgia Law School and SSDP at Georgia State University attended the meetings.

SSDP’s Outreach Director Jeremy Sharp Speaking with County Commissioners before LRC

Hunter Knight (16), Raiden Washington (21), and Jeremy Sharp (13) all voiced support for the ordinance before the LRC. Asserting that decriminalizing cannabis is a key step towards addressing harms of the racist War on Drugs, that this measure was needed to catch up to other Georgia municipalities efforts to reduce cannabis arrest.

Georgia State University SSDP President and Executive Director of Legalize Georgia Hunter Knight was present at the LRC Commission meeting. Hunter (pictured above) eloquently spoke about his recent arrest in Gwinnett County Georgia. He illuminated to the commissioners its effects on him as a college student, full-time employee, and caretaker. In his testimony, Hunter was able to state why state laws are inadequate, and how localities like Athens-Clarke County need to expand the definition of what marijuana to include all cannabis products, and how doing so would reduce felony arrest for simple cannabis possessions (under 28 gs). SSDPer’s also spoke about how this ordinance can be used as leverage for us to use when lobbying state legislators about wanting meaningful cannabis reform at the state level during the next legislative session at the state assembly. UGA SSDP’s work paid off, and on June 9th, Athens Clarke County’s Legislative Review Commission decided to vote on moving the ordinance to a vote before the full commission.

Raiden Washington: “Drug policy that provides equitable access and harm reduction resources is a non-partisan issue. The Drug War has affected all communities across identity and political lines, whether that’s due to losing loved ones to overdoses or incarceration. It’s time we stand together for our entire community’s betterment.The tools of the masters have been used by those who are oppressed.”

“It feels pretty good that the system that was built with ill intentions is slowly being reversed by the people it affects the most. – Hunter Knight.

Georgia Cannabis Laws:

GA is lagging behind the times on cannabis policy reform. It is one of only 19 states that still imposes jail time for simple possession of marijuana, and one of only 13 that lacks a compassionate medical cannabis law. Under the authority of the GA Hemp Farming Act, the GA Department of Agriculture (GDA) is authorized to regulate the cultivation and processing of hemp in the State of GA. This allows for ambiguity when enforcing cannabis laws and the GBI Crime Lab isn’t able to efficiently distinguish legal hemp from illegal marijuana. Delta 8 and other hemp derivatives are sold over the counter throughout the state, causing regulatory problems for local and state and enforcement purposes. While the state and federal government continue to drag their feet on this issue, people are still being jailed for nonviolent possession of a plant.

GA’s Criminal Justice System:

The criminalization of drug possession fuels the US and Geogian mass criminalization system. GA has 183 jails in 159 counties. Georgia’’s total county jail population in 2019 was 45,340. There were 420,000 people on probation in the state. There were 54,113 people under the jurisdiction of the GA Dept of Corrections in 34 state and private detention centers. The GA Department of Corrections had a staff of 9,169 employees and a budget of $1,205,012,739. 1 in 20 Georgians are on probation, parole, in Jail, or under some sort of supervision. The national average is 1 and 99. Private probation is an offender-funded system. Private companies with state or local contracts are allowed to charge individuals on probation with all kinds of extra fees and surcharges that far exceed their court fines. Failure to pay these fees can represent a violation of probation and risk re-entry into incarceration. Georgia has a long history of oppressive legal mechanisms used to disenfranchise. However, when it comes to drug policy reform, there is light at the end of the tunnel. SSDP’s network of activists is committed to making noise in the South!