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Greg Bluestein

DeKalb city aims to be first in Georgia to decriminalize marijuana

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Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry speaks during an event to welcome Syrian refugee families who have recently resettled in the city of Clarkston, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, in Clarkston, Ga. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL

Clarkston already is known as quite possibly the most diverse square mile in the nation. Now the DeKalb County city’s leaders are aiming for another title: The first city in Georgia to decriminalize marijuana.

Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry said the council’s public safety committee this month will review whether to make possession of less than one ounce of marijuana a ticket-only offense, putting it on the same level as a run-of-the-mill traffic violation. He expects the full council to bring it to a vote as early as May.

“The bottom line is the War on Drugs has failed,” said Terry, also a vice chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia. “It is time for elected officials to use evidence-based policies to make our communities safer and fight drug abuse.”

Other Georgia cities have flirted with the idea of decriminalizing marijuana use, but they’ve failed to gain traction. An effort in Athens sputtered recently when the city attorney concluded that state laws that make possession of the drug a misdemeanor crime take precedence over local ordinances.

Terry said his city is prepared to argue that it has “concurrent jurisdiction” with the state over low-level drug offenses. Clarkston’s plan would lay out a fee schedule that could charge as little as $5 in municipal court for the first offense.

At least 18 states and dozens of cities, including Detroit, Philadelphia and New York, have passed ordinances to make possessing small amounts of marijuana a non-criminal offense. But NORML, a marijuana rights advocacy, said it knows of no Georgia city with such a formal policy.

Paul Armentano, NORML’s deputy director, said the citation-only policies allow local authorities to “reprioritize resources” away from marijuana possession toward more serious crimes.

The reception it faces among Georgia’s leaders is a different story.

Georgia lawmakers have passed legislation that diverts more low-level drug offenders from lengthy prison sentences and legalized the use of a form of medical marijuana. But Gov. Nathan Deal has firmly opposed an expansion that would allow the in-state cultivation of the drug and said repeatedly it should be left to Congress, and not the state, to make broader changes to marijuana policy.

“We want to find a pathway to bring our children home from Colorado without becoming Colorado,” Deal said in his 2015 State of the State speech, a line he’s repeated several times since.

There are also legal questions about whether state law gives the DeKalb city the authority to decriminalize the drug. Bill Berryman, the Athens-Clarke County attorney who vetted the idea for his county commission, said in an interview his interpretation of the law gives the General Assembly the final say over local government involving controlled substances.

The mayor of Clarkston, a city with a long progressive streak, seems willing to test that theory. Terry was one of the most outspoken opponents of Deal’s attempt to halt Syrian refugees from resettling in Georgia, and the city of roughly 8,000 has become a home for immigrants fleeing persecution or war from around the globe.

“Hopefully the Legislature will applaud local control and home rule powers being used innovatively to address a major injustice in the judicial system,” said Terry, “and not try to preempt this next session.”