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Georgia Continues Vicious Race Based Weed Convictions, While "Legalizing" Medicinal Marijuana

Photo by Yash Lucid

Last September, the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission ("GAMCC") unanimously approved medical marijuana licenses for Botanical Sciences and Trulieve Georgia. Georgia is now on its way to profiting off marijuana, despite a deeply entrenched history of criminalizing and penalizing marijuana use, to the detriment of brown and Black communities.

In Georgia, possession of one ounce or less of marijuana is still a misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months’ imprisonment, a $1,000 fine, or 12 months of community service. Possession of more than an ounce is a felony punishable by a maximum of 10 years imprisonment. If prosecutors apply the state’s recidivism statute, defendants face a mandatory 10-year sentence without the possibility of parole.

The state has failed to pass bills that would have legalized and regulated cannabis for adults, as well as bills allowing voters to approve a constitutional legalization amendment, despite recreational marijuana being legal for adults in 21 states and Washington, D.C. Medical marijuana, meanwhile, is legal in 38 states and D.C.

Georgia still ranks sixth in the nation for marijuana arrest, drug charges and convictions, which contributes to Georgia’s rank as the fourth largest incarcerator of people in the nation. The state economy benefits considerably from incarceration.

Bills legalizing marijuana would have made enormous improvements toward restoring the rights of those incarcerated or convicted for possession of a plant that is widely legal. What they would not have done, however, is provide a means by which the state and its policing apparatuses could continue to profit. Its permission of the sale of medical marijuana to well-connected contractors and its outdated drug laws shows that drug policy and justice are all about the dollar in Georgia.

The terrible kicker is that brown and Black citizens and communities—historically the most policed and impoverished—will continue to suffer from inept, racist drug policies that contribute to mass incarceration. Georgia won't decriminalize marijuana when it impacts minority communities, but it will permit the sale of medical cannabis through contractors that provide kickbacks through new tax revenue. Additionally, most of the people on approved state lists to buy marijuana or cannabis based products are white, while most of the 40,000-plus Georgia marijuana convictions are against Black and brown people. Georgia refuses to pass bills decriminalizing or reducing penalties.

Some counties have passed more lenient policies concerning recreational use of weed, but these policies can only guide law enforcement behavior. If indicted, possessing more than an ounce of marijuana is still a felony.

Many Georgia courts have implemented the practice of referring more drug-related cases for addiction treatment programs or a conditional discharge method, typically through the state's First Offender Act. However, that statute is solely applicable to possession of less than an ounce. Some courts extend sentencing alternatives to second offenders, but only when defense attorneys know how to structure a plea to a second simple possession of weed.

These mitigatory processes do little for Black and brown communities. Data suggests that Black citizens are arrested under marijuana possession laws at nearly four times the rates of white citizens, despite there being no significant disparity in consumption rates between Black and white people. According to a 2020 ACLU report, half of the 52,000 Georgia marijuana arrests in 2018 alone were for simple possession.

The same report goes on to demonstrate that in the same year, 52% of all drug related arrests in the state were for simple possession. This would mean that most of these marijuana possession charges were against men and women of color. And the bigger issue still is that even those mitigatory judicial processes don't preclude criminal records, which can affect credit scores, postsecondary education acceptance, housing accessibility, and employment opportunities. Not to mention the risk of being re-sentenced under the state's unforgiving recidivism statute.

Georgia's drug policy has a malevolent racial awareness. It is a policy that enables money to be made while incarcerating select victims over a substance that the state will now allow the sale of via "approved vendors." Meanwhile, state prison systems are in crisis. They are failing to protect prisoners, flooded with drugs, and under federal investigation for human and civil rights violations. The last thing the state of Georgia needs is to enhance its carceral population.

It could well be argued that Georgia's lawmakers need to smoke one and chill out.


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