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Monday Morning Meditation – A call for compassion

D'ish Decatur Metro ATL

Monday Morning Meditation – A call for compassion

Source: Wikimedia commons

Source: Wikimedia commons

A friend asked me for advice after she was arrested by Decatur Police.

What’s the charge, I asked.

“Possession of the MJ,” she replied.

She had been pulled over for speeding. The officer told her that she smelled marijuana in the vehicle. The officer searched her car and found a small amount of pot. My friend was handcuffed, taken to the police station, photographed, fingerprinted and given a ride back to her car with a copy of her citation.

She’s now facing up to $1,000 in fines, a year in jail and the suspension of her driver’s license for six months. That last penalty applies to any marijuana-related offense in Georgia, regardless of whether the person was intoxicated while driving, or not driving at all.

I suggested she hire an attorney, but I had few insights to share. The law is the law, even when it’s stupid.

But her case did make me curious about how the Decatur Police Department handles marijuana arrests. I also wondered if the city could decriminalize simple possession of marijuana.

Changing times

The severity of the charges my friend is facing are a striking contrast to the shifting attitudes about marijuana around the country. Within the last week, Georgia’s Republican governor, Nathan Deal, got misty-eyed when he signed a medical marijuana bill into law.

While Georgia’s medical marijuana law is limited in scope, it’s a sign that this issue is no longer a fringe cause championed by West Coast liberals. A poll conducted in January of 2014 found that 62 percent of respondents in Georgia favored decriminalizing possession, reducing penalties to a $100 fine. More than half of those who responded – 54 percent – favored legalizing pot outright.

The mellowing of public opinion toward “the MJ” hasn’t resulted in mellower penalties for offenders, though police tactics have changed. Catch-and-release of people arrested for a misdemeanor marijuana possession is a fairly recent phenomenon, Decatur Police Sgt. Jennifer Ross said.

“Several years ago … we changed over from booking people into the jail for possession of marijuana less than an ounce, to arresting them and releasing them on a citation,” Ross said. She said the city was following the lead of other departments in the metro area.

She said Decatur Police made a total of 155 arrests for misdemeanor possession in 2014. As of April 17, 2015, the department has made 36 arrests for possession.

Decatur’s discretion

But while the Police Department spared offenders the costs of posting a bond, that’s only a fraction of what they will spend resolving their cases. My friend told me she’s weighing whether she will plead guilty, no contest, or enter into a pre-trial diversion program that would require random drug testing.

Her lawyer is encouraging her to take advantage of the diversion program.

“He is saying the only option for me is six months of drug testing and classes, plus the costs associated with that,” she told me.

Is harsh sentencing the only option for cities when it comes to enforcement of marijuana laws? Could local city governments treat these offenders differently if the public supports it?

It’s a question that few people I spoke to seemed willing to entertain.

Stephen Bradley, an Advisory Board Member for the marijuana advocacy group Peachtree NORML, said he thinks local government can pass laws decriminalizing simple possession of marijuana. But enforcing them would be tricky

“I think where the problem is going to come in, though, is a city passes an ordinance that essentially decriminalizes cannabis. That’s fine if the person is arrested on city charges,” Bradley said.  “If someone is arrested on state charges, that isn’t going to matter.”

My assumption would be that since police departments are enforcing a state law, city governments can’t deviate from the penalties outlined in state code. City Manager Peggy Merriss supported that assumption.

“This is something I would have to defer to the City Attorney for a definitive answer. But I believe that criminal charges related to marijuana are established in state and federal law – not local ordinance, so we would not have the discretion you describe,” she said.

Attorney Bob Wilson, whose firm represents the city of Decatur, its schools and the city of Avondale Estates, said he did not have the authority to answer my “speculative legal question.”

“However, you might want to take a look at the oath of office for such officials,” he added. “That might be of some assistance to you.”

I assume Wilson is referring to the provision of state code that requires all elected officials to swear to “support the Constitution of the United States and of this state.”

An oath, not an endorsement

While Decatur’s elected officials are sworn to uphold the constitution and laws of this state, there’s nothing in the oath that says they have to like it. Case in point: voters approved amending the State of Georgia’s constitution in 2004 to outlaw gay marriage.

That didn’t stop Decatur from creating a Domestic Partnership Registry in 2013. The resolution establishing it acknowledges “the State of Georgia does not currently permit same-sex partners to be legally married nor does it provide for any alternative options to recognize and record same-sex partnerships.”

The city’s registry doesn’t change that, but it does allow the city to provide local recognition of these relationships. It’s a symbolic gesture, but a powerful one.

Decatur’s fond of enshrining lofty ideals within symbolic resolutions.

One year ago, Decatur’s City Commission pledged to work toward a creating a more compassionate community.

Commissioners signed the “Charter for Compassion.” According to the charter, signatories pledge to “honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”

The charter goes onto say, “It is also necessary in both public and private life to refrain consistently and emphatically from inflicting pain. To act or speak violently out of spite, chauvinism, or self-interest, to impoverish, exploit or deny basic rights to anybody, and to incite hatred by denigrating others—even our enemies—is a denial of our common humanity.”

Marilyn Turkovich, Interim Director for the Charter for Compassion, said the group has not weighed in on the decriminalization of marijuana.

“This is an issue that has never come up so it is fair to say we have no position on it,” Turkovich said. “As you undoubtedly know, the Charter encourages a local initiative to identify issues that are part of their action plan and to work on those issues.”

Testing the limits of compassion

I’d like to identify an issue. It’s 2015. Marijuana possession has been decriminalized by more than a dozen states, and is legal for recreational use in four states. The Republican governor of this state didn’t just sign a bill allowing for limited use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. He called a press conference and cried over it.

But the city of Decatur still arrests dozens of people for simple possession every year, inflicting pain by sticking them with costly fines, impoverishing them and exploiting their financial resources for the city’s benefit.

The city may be legally required to do this, but the city’s police officers, prosecutors and judges work for the taxpayers. Each official has an ability to exercise a certain amount of discretion within their official capacities. Could the city’s leadership request that people arrested for this offense are given the lightest sentence allowed under the law?

At a minimum, could city commissioners pass a resolution stating that as a Compassionate City, they do not feel the state’s current marijuana possession law honors the “inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect”?

The state’s laws on this subject lack compassion and they also lack common sense. A sober person driving with pot in their possession is no more dangerous than a sober person driving with alcohol in their possession. But only one of them could face lasting repercussions if they get pulled over for speeding.

Decatur’s leaders can’t change unjust state laws. They can, however, advocate for changing them.