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

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In this October file photo, Anthony Viator hangs harvested marijuana buds for drying on grower Laura Costa's farm near Garberville, Calif. State tax collectors are taking initial steps to get a handle on the vast, emerging economy, with billions of dollars at stake in the future for the state treasury. AP/Rich Pedroncelli

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.

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