Athens-Clarke commission eliminates jail time, sets $35 fine for marijuana possession

·5 min read

Athens possibly goes further than any other city in Georgia with an ordinance that lowers the consequences for those caught with small amounts of marijuana to just a $35 fine.

Athens-Clarke County commissioners on Tuesday approved an ordinance that eliminates jail time and established one of the lowest fees in the state for those caught with less than an ounce of marijuana.

The ordinance passed 8-1. Commissioner Ovita Thornton voted against the ordinance and Commissioner Allison Wright was not present.

At the state level, a misdemeanor possession of marijuana has a maximum penalty of up to 12 months in prison and/or a $1,000 fine, but commissioners said local law enforcement rarely demanded that large of a price.

The ordinance had changed since it was last discussed by the commission. At a July meeting, commissioners had considered a $1 fine. But the city's attorney later informed them that's not doable.

Mariah Parker
Mariah Parker

The fine was set at $35 because there is a mandatory minimum surcharge from the state. According to Commissioner Mariah Parker, the minimum required fine would go to the county law library, the sheriff's retirement fund and the Peace Officers' Annuity and Benefit Fund.

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While other Georgia municipalities have passed similar measures, Commissioner Jesse Houle said he believes Athens' fine is the lowest.

Atlanta, Savannah, Macon-Bibb, Statesboro, Tybee Island, Clarkston, Chamblee, Forest Park, Kingsland and South Fulton have also enacted measures to decriminalize marijuana possession. They did away with jail time for possession of small amounts and opted for imposing fines. But the various fines could run residents anywhere from $75 to $500, according to those cities' ordinances.

In Athens, the $35 fine is for possession under an ounce. Anything over an ounce is considered a felony in Georgia.

Possessing marijuana in any amount is still considered illegal in Georgia and in Athens. The ordinance only prevents jail time and reduces the amount of fines for misdemeanor possession.

Athens responds

Chaplain Cole Knapper said marijuana saved her life.

Knapper explained how she was a veteran who suffered from PTSD and anxiety following multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the U.S. Army. While in New York, she obtained a medical marijuana card.

“As a Christian … and a faith leader, I really struggled to reconcile this new medicine that had made such a difference in my life with my faith,” Knapper told commissioners during a public speaking session held at the Tuesday meeting. “But then I got educated about the history of marijuana in this country and specifically the absolutely devastating and disproportionate impact of marijuana enforcement on poor, black and brown communities.”

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Former commission candidate Asia Thomas briefly spoke about her efforts working with Athens’ youth and teaching them to say no to drugs.

FILE - Asia Thomas answers questions during a forum hosted by Historic Athens on Monday, April 11, 2022 in Athens.
FILE - Asia Thomas answers questions during a forum hosted by Historic Athens on Monday, April 11, 2022 in Athens.

Thomas called marijuana a gateway drug and urged people who thought that it wasn’t to speak with Black residents on the East Side who started smoking marijuana before moving on to other, harder drugs.

“I believe that if marijuana is such, a medical thing, that people should have a prescription for it. So when they get pulled over let them pull out their prescription that shows that they are able to use that drug. But I really don't think that that's what it's about. It's a recreational thing,” said Thomas. “And if we care so much about Black lives ... I would like everybody when you leave here today to go down to Nelly B ... and see how much addiction is affecting the Black community.”

Thornton was the only commissioner to vote against the ordinance. She stated that she believes that marijuana is a gateway drug — “maybe not for everyone, but for too many.” 

Jesse Houle
Jesse Houle

No far enough

The ordinance did not go as far as some commissioners wanted.

Commissioner Jesse Houle had previously spoken of a commission-defined option (CDO) that would get rid of probable cause. This would mean that smelling marijuana or having a misdemeanor possession amount would not be grounds for a search by police to look for potential other crimes.

During the meeting, however, they noted there was not enough support for the CDO to pass, so they would not introduce it at this time. Parker was one person who voiced support for the CDO.

“I'd like to see us find a way forward on that, perhaps in the future. Ideally, in the near future,” said Houle. “I think there's more work to be done, to maybe do that in a more thoughtful and even perhaps more effective way."

Houle additionally brought up questions to government staff about the local government’s drug-free workplace policy.

While the new ordinance covers residents caught with possession of marijuana, it does not protect those employed at the local government who test positive for THC, the main active ingredient in cannabis that gets a person high.

Athens-Clarke County government has a drug-free workplace policy that asserts that a positive drug test, including for THC, will lead to an employee’s termination.

During the meeting, Houle asked whether or not tests could pick up residual amounts of THC that could be found in legal CBD products. The response was “possibly.”

This article originally appeared on Athens Banner-Herald: Athens' marijuana decriminalization ordinance goes furthest in Georgia