Clarkston Finds Support To Decriminalize Marijuana Possession

Al Such / WABE

The city of Clarkston’s public safety committee held a public hearing Friday to discuss Mayor Ted Terry’s proposal to decriminalize marijuana possession.

The proposal would change the penalty from jail to a fine and would authorize city officers not to arrest people caught with less than an ounce of marijuana. 

Currently, suspects face up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. Mayor Ted Terry says one idea is to impose a $5 fine.

Terry said he believes giving people life-long criminal records for low-level, non-violent drug offenses is not just and disproportionately affects African-Americans, who are more likely to be stopped by police than whites in DeKalb County.

At the meeting, Terry shared his personal story of how he was impacted by an arrest by Atlanta Police in 2006 while canvassing for the Sierra Club.

Many in the crowd thanked the mayor and praised the City Council members for the proposal, applauding and repeating the city’s slogan, “small town, big heart.”

James Bell, who runs the Georgia Campaign for Access, Reform and Education Project and lobbies for legalization of marijuana, attended the meeting. 

“Tonight is certainly refreshing,” said Bell. “It’s a bit of fresh air and a bit of truth that our public needs to hear.”  

Clarkston Police Chief Christine Hudson thinks the fine will need to be higher than $5, but she supports the ordinance.

“My officers are out there, they’re not out that worried about catching that person with marijuana less than an ounce,” Hudson said. “They don’t want to do all that paperwork.”

Hudson said in the past two years, there have been 77 marijuana cases where officers found suspects with less than an ounce of marijuana. She said 15 of those cases involved a second charge, which prompted their case to be sent to state court. Thirty eight people were given a citation and released on scene and 24 were taken to jail to post a bond and charges were heard in municipal court. No one was sent to prison for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.  

National Families in Action opposes legalization of marijuana, but the group’s founder Sue Rusche said decriminalization is a good step. But she said that Clarkston should also consider a threat of arrest unless people complete educational or treatment programs if caught with less than an ounce of marijuana.

“I think you have an opportunity in Clarkson to do something that very few if any other communities have done and take a leadership role in showing them how to do it in a way so you add more than one goal, to switch it from criminal justice to public health,” Rusche said.

Councilman Dean Moore said the proposal came out of discussions with council members about arrest records making it difficult to get job interviews. He expects to vote on an ordinance next month.

“We’re not condoning the use of it or intoxication under any form,” Moore said. “Really the subject is incarceration, arrest records, inability to get employment because of arrest for marijuana … and not be marginalized by a small amounts of substance that most Americans are already using.”

Orlando is the latest city in Florida looking to decriminalize marijuana. Volusia, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties in Florida, as well as the city of Tampa, already have civil penalties in place for minor marijuana offenses.