Kelly Girtz, mayor of Athens, Georgia, takes notes at the Athens Mayor and Commission meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. (Photo/Jason Born)

To date, 11 Georgia municipalities have passed cannabis decriminalization measures that allow officers to issue tickets in lieu of jail for possessing less than one ounce, similar to a parking ticket. These measures do not change the legal status of cannabis, but instead reduce the legal penalties. Almost 1.2 million Georgians live in a community where there is no fear of jail time for simple cannabis possession, but Athens residents are not among them.

I am calling on Mayor Kelly Girtz to follow through with his recent statement that a decriminalization measure could be passed in Athens by the end of this year. This policy measure is past due and we’re lagging behind many other Georgia municipalities to help push the state in the right direction.

Due to unforeseen complications from the passage of the Georgia Hemp Farming Act, which legalized hemp production in Georgia, the Athens-Clarke County Police Department said they will not arrest people for cannabis possession until the department receives updated testing equipment which can differentiate between legal hemp and illegal cannabis. However, officers will continue to seize the suspected illegal material. When new equipment is available, they will issue warrants for any material that tests for an illegal level of THC. Individuals from whom the material was seized would then face the same consequences as before, including jail time.

Having a drug charge puts people at risk of financial instability and losing access to employment, housing and federal grants for education. Additionally, cannabis possession charges in Athens have been racially biased, specifically targeting African Americans. According to a Flagpole analysis of ACCPD data, African American residents are almost five times more likely to be charged with cannabis possession than their white counterparts in Athens.

We live in an interesting time in which 11 states have legalized cannabis for recreational use and 33 have legalized for medical purposes. Canada legalized recreational cannabis last year, and Mexico announced it plans to legalize before the end of the month. According to cannabis website Leafly, the industry is growing at a rapid pace, employing over 211,000 people full-time, including myself. Everything I pay for in Athens — taxes, housing, utilities and supporting local businesses — comes from the legal cannabis industry, creating a strange dichotomy where Athens citizens face harsh legal penalties for the very products that my clients are legally producing.

While citizens like myself can encourage our commissioners to support a cannabis decriminalization policy, the commissioners’ hands are tied because the Mayor alone sets the voting agenda.

I urge the mayor to bring his latest statement to fruition and enact policies that will protect the citizens of Athens-Clarke County. We should give the commissioners a chance to vote on a progressive issue that some of them campaigned on. We have a chance to move forward and show Athens is a progressive leader, but we’re currently trailing behind many other municipalities.

What are we waiting on?

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