The City of Clarkston in DeKalb County is on track to be one of Georgia’s most progressive cities with a newly reduced set of fines and penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The ordinance, passed unanimously by Mayor Ted Terry and the city council, calls for a reduced fine of $75 and no jail time for anyone caught with one ounce or less of marijuana.
According to Terry, instructions for Clarkston police stopping anyone with a small amount of the drug are not to arrest them, but simply issue the $75 citation, which they can pay online without having to appear in court.
Terry said he and other members of the city council began looking at ways on a smaller-scale level they could enact criminal justice reforms, specifically for nonviolent drug offenders.
Through some research, Terry said he uncovered the city had arrested 77 individuals in the last few years who, after fines, fees and bail, had spent between $600 and $1000 dollars for possessing small amounts of marijuana.
“I felt that was an excessive punitive fine, and going to jail, even for just a night, has both short and long-term consequences on individuals and the community,” Terry said.
In January of this year, the city passed a resolution and began studying a ticket-only system. Terry said they invited speakers, took public testimony and held several hearings over the course of the last six months until finally arriving at the no jail time portion of the ordinance.
“That was a huge part of it,” Terry said. “And we wanted to make the fine low, but not trivial. We operated under the assumption that anything under $50 would be trivial and trying to decriminalize something that, on a state and federal level, is still illegal.”
He said the idea was that instead of fining someone a month’s salary for misdemeanor possession of marijuana, they should only be fined a day’s salary. This meant it would not be trivial amount, but would also not cause them to go into debt for a simple, non-violent mistake, he said.
According to Terry, Clarkston Chief of Police Christine Hudson was onboard from the beginning and is in favor of everything which was passed.
However, he said local officers can use their discretion to make arrests. Incidents covered under different state and federal codes would include someone publicly using and under the influence of drugs, driving while under the influence selling drugs or if there is any indication there is intent to distribute.
“This is by no means Clarkston Las Vegas,” Terry said. “We simply wanted to try and balance the scales [...] and this is a cautionary step, but in order to be a leader, you have got to be first.”
Going forward, the new policy will be monitored very carefully by city officials and local law enforcement, and Terry said it could be re-evaluated again at a later time for potential changes.
For now, he said the city is expecting $30,000 to $40,000 less in revenues due to less fines for possession.
“The trend in municipal and county governments around the country is to balance the budget on the backs of these typically punitive fines, which disproportionately affect low-income people,” Terry said. “The blowback from this is much more damaging [than a loss of revenue], and I see crime going down. Our officers will have more time to focus on patrols, community policing and stopping violent crimes.”
Governor Nathan Deal has said publicly he is not in favor of legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and is against any efforts that would decriminalize the drug, such as with Clarkston.
Currently, in the rest of DeKalb County fines for misdemeanor possession of Marijuana of under one ounce can carry up to $1,000 in fines as well as possible jail time, according to the county’s traffic division.
In 2015, The State Court of DeKalb County Traffic Division was given jurisdiction over state traffic cases, which includes misdemeanor marijuana possession, in unincorporated DeKalb County. These cases were formerly handled by the recorder’s court.
Members of Clarkston and DeKalb County law enforcement could not be reached for comment after multiple attempts.