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

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

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

The regulation had changed since the last discussion by the Commission. At a meeting in July, the commissioners had considered a $1 fine. But the city attorney later told them that was not feasible.

The fine was set at $35 due to a mandatory minimum surcharge imposed by the state. According to Commissioner Mariah Parker, the required minimum sentence would go to the District Law Library, the Sheriff’s Pension Fund and the Peace Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund.

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While other Georgia communities have passed similar measures, Commissioner Jesse Houle said he believes Athens’ penalty is the lowest.

Atlanta, Savannah, Macon-Bibb, Statesboro, Tybee Island, Clarkston, Chamblee, Forest Park, Kingsland and South Fulton have also taken action to decriminalize marijuana possession. They abolished jail time for possession of small amounts and opted for fines. But the various fines could cost residents anywhere from $75 to $500, according to those cities’ ordinances.

In Athens, the $35 fine applies to possession of less than an ounce. Anything over an ounce is considered a crime in Georgia.

Possession of marijuana in any quantity is still illegal in Georgia and Athens. The ordinance only prevents jail time and reduces the size of fines for possession of misdemeanor.

Athens responds

Chaplain Cole Knapper said marijuana saved her life.

Knapper explained that she was a veteran who suffered from PTSD and anxiety after multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan with the US Army. While in New York, she obtained a medical marijuana ID card.

“As a Christian … and a faith leader, I’ve really struggled to reconcile this new drug that has been so life-changing with my faith,” Knapper told commissioners during a public speech at Tuesday’s meeting. “But then I was educated on 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 spoke briefly about her efforts to work with the youth of Athens and teach them to say no to drugs.

Calling marijuana a gateway drug, Thomas challenged people who thought it wasn’t like talking to black East Side residents who started smoking marijuana before moving on to other, harder drugs.

“I think if marijuana is such a medical thing, people should have a prescription for it. So if they get stopped, have them pull out their prescription that shows they are capable of using that drug. But I really don’t think that’s the point. It’s a recreational activity,” Thomas said. “And if we care so much about black lives … I want everyone when you leave here today to go to Nelly B … and see how much addiction is affecting the black community.”

Jesse Holle

Not far enough

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

Commissioner Jesse Houle had previously spoken of a commission-defined option (CDO) that would eliminate the probable cause. This would mean that smelling marijuana or possessing a misdemeanor quantity would not be grounds for a police search to look for possible other offenses.

However, during the meeting, they realized that there was not enough support for adopting the CDO, so they would not introduce it at this time. Parker was one person who expressed support for the CDO.

“I’d like to see how we find a way around that, maybe in the future. Ideally in the near future,” said Houle. “I think there’s still a lot of work to be done to maybe do this in a more thoughtful and maybe even more effective way.”

Houle also asked government officials questions about the local government’s drug-free workplace policy.

While the new regulation covers residents caught possessing marijuana, it does not protect those employed by local government who have tested positive for THC, the main compound in cannabis that gets a person high.

The Athens-Clarke County government has a drug-free workplace policy that states that a positive drug test, including for THC, will result in the termination of an employee.

During the meeting, Houle asked if testing could detect residual levels of THC that might be found in legal CBD products. The answer was “possibly”.