Learn before you burn: What to know about Atlanta’s new marijuana law

What can and can’t happen to you under the legislation
Learn before you burn

Photograph by Maren Caruso via Getty Images

The Atlanta City Council voted unanimously on October 2 to pass legislation that will decrease penalties for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana in the city, making the punishment more akin to getting a speeding ticket. The decision had local celebs like 2 Chainz, Big Boi, and Killer Mike singing praises. Councilman Kwanza Hall, who authored the measure, tweeted this week. “Let me be clear. Jail is a gateway, not possession of marijuana.”

But misinformation about the law started spreading as soon as the vote was passed. No, this isn’t legalization, or even truly decriminalization. And even with the new law, you can still get jail time or a higher fine if you’re caught smoking in Atlanta. Here’s what you should know:

What exactly does the legislation do?
As Atlanta Police Department Chief Erika Shields told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the ordinance deals with the punishment municipal courts can dole out for people caught possessing less than an ounce of marijuana within the City of Atlanta limits (sorry, OTP-ers). Before, the city’s ordinance mirrored the Georgia law, which said a person caught with any amount of marijuana could be punished with up to six months in jail or a fine of up to $1,000. Under the new city ordinance, a municipal judge has one option for punishment: a $75 fine and no jail time. It does not make possessing marijuana legal. Selling or possessing any amount of marijuana is still against the law.

When does the legislation go into effect?
As soon as Mayor Kasim Reed signs the bill or simply does not act on it beyond the eight-day time period, which ends midnight on October 10. The only way the bill will not become law is if Reed vetoes it, but this seems unlikely as he already tweeted that he plans to sign it. (Update: Mayor Reed signed the legislation on October 10.)

Cool. So I can openly smoke marijuana in Atlanta and I’ll only have to pay $75 fine if I get caught?
Not necessarily. Even though the legislation states there will be no jail time and a maximum fee of $75 for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, it’s still possible a person can receive jail time or a larger fine. How? The state law that says possession of any amount of marijuana is punishable with up to a $1,000 fine and up to six months and jail still stands, so anyone caught in possession of marijuana within the state of Georgia can be punished under that law. According to Carlos Campos, the director of public affairs for the Atlanta Police Department, it is at the discretion of the police officer to decide when to enforce the city ordinance or the state law—even if you’re within the City of Atlanta limits.

However, this legislation only affects the courts. While police will use their best judgment to enforce the law fairly, the ultimate ruling will fall on a judge.

But officers from the Atlanta Police Department are required to enforce only the city ordinance, right?
No. If an officer is POST-certified (a certification that establishes training standards for Georgia law enforcement officers), they have the authority to enforce either city or state laws. This means even if you are carrying less than an ounce of marijuana within Atlanta city limits and are caught by an APD officer, that officer still has the discretion to enforce a $1,000 fine and six months of jail time in accordance with state law. However, according Campos, don’t expect APD to enforce state law without a special reason.

“At the Atlanta Police Department, the focus is on violent crime and crimes that truly affect people—things that endanger lives,” Campos said. “We’re not out there looking to drag people to jail for smoking a joint or having a small bag of weed. We want to fill jails with armed robbers, rapists, burglars, home invaders—we do not want to fill the jails with pot smokers. That’s the bottom line.”

But, Campos cautions, “We just don’t want people to have the impression that it’s okay to openly walk around with a bag of weed or a pipe or a joint. That is still a crime.”

Okay, so what about Georgia State University or Georgia Tech police?
Similar to the Atlanta Police Department, it is at the discretion of the officer to choose whether to enforce city or state law. Joseph Spillane, Georgia State University’s chief of police, says his force will continue operation as normal: writing citations for students caught in possession of marijuana.

“What’s going to change for the student is, instead of going over to the city jail and having to pay up to a $1,000 fine, they can just pay a $75 fine,” Spillane said.

So if the legislation is more of a guideline for police than a requirement, what really is its purpose?
Xochitl Bervera, director of Racial Justice Action Center, says it best: “The significance of the city council passing this legislation unanimously is that it’s a clear directive to the Atlanta Police Department saying ‘we are not interested in locking people up for possession of marijuana.’ So yes, you could go ahead and arrest them under state law, but we’re saying that here in the City of Atlanta, that’s not what we want to see happening to people.”

Bervera also adds that this is a first step in the direction of decriminalizing marijuana. When Georgia cities begin changing laws, it encourages other jurisdictions—and even the state—to consider revising its laws, she says.

Is there a difference if I get caught smoking marijuana versus just having it on me?
No. As Bervera says: “If you have the marijuana in your pocket or you have the marijuana in your mouth, both things are considered possession.”

If I’m caught in possession of marijuana, will the officer confiscate it?
Yes. We’re pretty sure police aren’t going to give you your weed back. Sorry.

So why is everyone calling this “marijuana decriminalization” if having weed is still a crime?
Decriminalization is a buzz word attached to the legislation. Technically, this legislation isn’t decriminalization. It is still a crime if someone is in possession of any amount of marijuana. The legislation only reduces the punishment on the city’s books.

How do drug dealers feel about all this?
Well, we actually reached out to one and asked if he thought the legislation would increase business. “No, this is Atlanta,” he laughed. “More people smoke weed here than in California, and it’s been that way for years. I don’t think it will affect business, but if it does, it’ll definitely be in a positive way.”

Additional reporting by Julia Bainbridge and Thomas Wheatley.