Georgia’s debate over marijuana will proceed — but only if a Trump administration allows it

The debate over whether Georgia will become a safer space for marijuana, in medicinal or any other form, is poised to pick up speed next year. But only if the incoming Donald Trump administration doesn’t shut it down.

And with the nomination of U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama as the nation’s next U.S. attorney general, that has become a distinct possibility.

On the same November day that voters handed the New York businessman the keys to the White House, four states — California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada – approved the adult use of marijuana for recreational purposes.

Three more — Arkansas, Florida, and North Dakota — passed ballot initiatives that legalized the use of marijuana derivatives for medicinal purposes.

To a limited extent, Georgia has been part of this national shift in attitude toward marijuana. The Legislature has authorized the possession of cannabis oil by those diagnosed with certain conditions or diseases.

But obtaining that oil – carrying it across the state line — remains an illegal act in this state.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, recently upped the local ante. Fort is one of many, many candidates lining up for next year’s contest to succeed Kasim Reed as mayor of Atlanta.

Fort says he wants to make possession of an ounce or less of marijuana something akin to a traffic offense within the city limits of Atlanta. The state senator points to a 2013 national study by the ACLU that listed Fulton and DeKalb counties as among the jurisdictions with the highest racial disparities when it comes to arrests for simple possession.

Reputable studies say white and black Americans use marijuana at roughly the same rates. But the story changes when it comes to enforcement. “African-Americans are eight times more likely, in Fulton County, to be arrested for marijuana possession,” Fort said this week.

Opponents of legalization argue that marijuana is a gateway drug that leads users to harder and more addictive substances. Fort contends that pot is indeed a gateway drug, but to something else entirely – particularly for young black men.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, meets with attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., on Tuesday in Washington. AP/Molly Riley

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, meets with attorney general nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., on Tuesday in Washington. AP/Molly Riley

“In the African-American community, a marijuana possession arrest is step one, in many instances, into the mass-incarceration pipeline,” he said.

Fort would have the city of Atlanta follow the example of the small city of Clarkston in DeKalb County, where simple possession results in a $75 fine. “I don’t know why City Hall hasn’t thought about this before. If Clarkston can do it, the city of Atlanta can. I think there’s a moral imperative,” Fort said.

While attitudes toward pot are changing, they aren’t changing as quickly as with other social issues – gay marriage, for instance. Fines for marijuana possession might sell in south Atlanta and Midtown, but what about Buckhead? I asked Fort.

The senator smiled. “I think the usage of marijuana is not confined to any one section of the city,” he said.

It is important to note that what Fort is speaking about should be called a “deprioritization” of marijuana laws rather than “decriminalization.” A city can no more negate a state law than a state can negate a federal one – something we’ll get to in a few paragraphs.

An offender brought before a municipal judge for marijuana possession might be hit with a fine under Fort’s plan. But a prosecutor could still bring misdemeanor charges in state court, where the penalty would be as high as a $1,000 fine or a year in jail.

Further, Fort makes clear that he has taken no position on the legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.


In that, he shares ground with state Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, who opposes legalization of pot for general use. For the last two sessions of the Legislature, Peake has been the chief voice in the state Capitol for the medicinal use of cannabis.

Peake said he would like to try again to pass a bill that would permit a limited number of entities to grow cannabis for its oil – and allow medicinal users to escape any threat of state prosecution.

But one alternative would be to follow Florida’s example, and push a proposed constitutional amendment that would be placed on the November 2018 general election ballot. Even the National Football League says it would consider allowing players to use medicinal pot to control pain, rather than more addictive opioids, Peake notes.

“It’s coming to Georgia at some point. Do we want to deal with it now, or do we want the next governor to deal with it?” Peake asked.

And yet all of this – the push for “deprioritizing” enforcement, the use of pot for medicinal purposes, and the acceptance of marijuana as a recreational drug for adults – could come to a crashing halt when Jeff Sessions becomes U.S. attorney general.

During his campaign, Trump may have said that marijuana reform should be a state issue, but his nominee for the nation’s top law enforcement officer has been a fierce critic of the Obama administration for what the Alabama senator calls its abandonment of federal prohibitions on marijuana.

“I think one of [Obama’s] great failures, it’s obvious to me, is his lax treatment in comments on marijuana. It reverses 20 years almost of hostility to drugs that began really when Nancy Reagan started ‘Just Say No,’” Sessions said at a hearing just last April.

A Rolling Stone magazine interview with Barack Obama, published Wednesday, quotes president thusly on marijuana:

I’ve been very clear about my belief that we should try to discourage substance abuse. And I am not somebody who believes that legalization is a panacea. But I do believe that treating this as a public-health issue, the same way we do with cigarettes or alcohol, is the much smarter way to deal with it.

All of this means that you might soon see marijuana reform advocates of all stripes forced into an uncomfortable, all-for-one alliance.

“Medical marijuana is providing relief to untold numbers of patients with chronic illnesses here in Georgia and across the country,” said Lyle Harris, who recently quit his job as a spokesman for MARTA and is now an advocate for full-throated legalization of pot. “Americans should expect the president-elect, and his nominee for attorney general, to respect their right to make private medical decisions.”

But to figure out what might happen in the city of Atlanta and inside the Capitol next year, Sessions’ confirmation hearing won’t be the only one that will bear watching come January. U.S. Rep. Tom Price of Roswell, Trump’s pick for secretary of Health and Human Services, has been a skeptic when it comes to the use of medicinal pot – and could have major say-so over its future use by physicians.

Reader Comments 0

18 comments
Jay Smallwood
Jay Smallwood

We need a referendum on it to get it legalized...the goverment wont do it..

Larry Clark
Larry Clark

HOW does Trump affect his? Isn't it a state issue? Calm down trollers and get your panties straightened out

Karen Rogers
Karen Rogers

Georgia should legalize it for medical use only.

Garry Hyrne
Garry Hyrne

Damn liberals want to blame everything on Trump. My freind blames him for global warming.

James Devere
James Devere

Trump has already said he was leaving that up to the individual states,so calm down. Obama promised to decriminalize it during his administration,so why not hold his feet to the fire,AJC? That promise went on the same shelf as "if you like your healthcare plan,you can keep it".

Jonathan Packer
Jonathan Packer

Not to mention that trump has nominated an anti-marijuana Attorney General.. And sec. of health.

Jason Rains
Jason Rains

What? He never said he would decriminalize weed. If you can find where he said it, I'll gladly admit I'm wrong, but I'm about 99% sure on this.

Sam Nicholas
Sam Nicholas

Nawwww Man! It's time for the 'Obama's fault' thing to end. Trump's picks are uber conservatives and want nothing to do with legalizing the drug of the 'liberals'.

James Devere
James Devere

He hasn't even been sworn in yet,give him a chance.

Arden Jones
Arden Jones

Trump also said he was going to put Hillary in jail and get bankers out of DC. He won't let the states decide on this.

James Devere
James Devere

Sam Nicholas,get ready to hear "Obama's fault" for the rest of your life. We've been hearing "Bush's fault" for the last eight years,but then again,Bush didn't double our national debt,which your great grandkids will still be paying on,but Obama did.

Harry K. James
Harry K. James

That would only mean Jay Bookman wouldn't be as stoned.

Kenneth Deshotel
Kenneth Deshotel

Georgia is a prison state medical Marijuana has a up hill fight in front of it but if we come together people needing it would get much needed help the only thing we have for chronic pain is pain medication which is killing us here in Georgia and I think that is so stupid

JF Williams
JF Williams

How do you not know? You've been living under a mutha luvin rock or something? Try Google. Takes 15-30 seconds.

JF Williams
JF Williams

Yeah it's generally pretty easy to get thrown in jail here in Georgia for victimless crimes where no one was hurt and no property was stolen or vandalized.

Bonnie Martin
Bonnie Martin

JF Williams "victimless crimes" wtf is a "victimless crime" ???????????

Brian Breese
Brian Breese

Ugh!! I don't even smoke, but the 'motivation' behind the battle between the factions that are 'for vs against', is so incredibly obvious that it's ridiculous. A traditionally conservative state, steeped in old school religiosity (at least for 'appearance' sake), arguing against a drug that they refuse to even understand completely, while a cash starved legislature is drooling(albeit low key) over the possible huge revenue source that legalized weed would be. But of course these same legislators are living large off lobbying $$ coming from Big Pharma, so that marijuana will remain criminalized. The lobbyists from the private prisons are piling in there also. Weed, indirectly, is a huge revenue source for them also. This wouldn't even be an issue if there weren't so many folks in power, trying to get paid. Jeff Dombrowski