Last week, as Washington, DC handled an aggressive onslaught of weather referred to as a “bomb cyclone,” the biggest news hitting the Associated Press was the decision by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to rescind the 2013 “Cole Memorandum,” which gave states a tentative green light to move forward with marijuana legalization while preserving the federal prosecutors’ ability to enforce federal marijuana laws. In practice, the Cole Memo allowed states to feel relatively confident about moving forward with marijuana legalization, with little fear of federal intrusion.
Although the approval rates for marijuana legalization are at an all-time high nationally – with nearly two-thirds of Americans supporting legalization, including a majority of Republicans – Sessions’ action may have implications for communities in the Deep South that have been advocating for and passing legislation decriminalizing marijuana use. This new DOJ edict may have a chilling effect on future marijuana law reforms in Georgia.
In October 2017, Atlanta marijuana advocates rejoiced when the Atlanta City Council approved an ordinance that was signed into law by then-Mayor Kasim Reed, which allowed for the reclassification of marijuana under an ounce to become a non-criminal, ticketable offense. However, the stipulation continues to be that marijuana possession is illegal under Georgia state law; carrying any amount has the potential to result in 180 days of jail time, a fine of up to $1,000, and a litany of collateral consequences that can impact employment, housing, family and life opportunities.
The Atlanta decriminalization ordinance is a prime example of cities taking matters into their own hands, without the fear of federal oversight. This strategy has the potential to be the new normal going forward. More than 90 percent of law enforcement in the U.S. is carried out at the state and local level. The federal government has neither the political support nor the resources to stamp out every person operating in compliance with state and local marijuana laws.
The flipside of marijuana prohibition, however, will continue to involve systemic racial oppression that has largely targeted Black and Brown communities.
For example, last weekend Californians celebrated the passage of Proposition 64, which permits adults age 21 and older to use marijuana. Simultaneously, on the other side of the country in Cartersville, GA, at least 63 people, mostly Black, were arrested on suspicion of possessing less than an ounce of marijuana at a New Year’s Eve house party.
As states begin legalizing marijuana, drug-war racial disparities persist. People living in states that have legalized – particularly those in positions of power, who have the resources to resist federal government interventions – will fight back against draconian drug laws. While people in states that still criminalize marijuana use will be forced to fall in line.
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Unfortunately for Georgians and those living in rural areas throughout the Deep South, drug possession is the single most arrestable offense in the U.S., and Black and Brown people are arrested, convicted, and sentenced at unequally high rates. Marijuana represents by far the largest share of those arrests, meaning that people in one of the eight legal marijuana states may profit from manufacturing and selling marijuana while people in other states, especially people of color, are arrested and sentenced to harsh terms of imprisonment for merely possessing marijuana. The consequences of these harsh policies have been devastating for millions of individuals, their families, and communities.
By rescinding the Cole Memo, Jeff Sessions may encourage states like Georgia to maintain the status quo regarding marijuana, which will result in the unnecessary arrest and incarceration of hundreds of Georgians for using a drug that is legal in other states.
“Make no mistake, more families will be destroyed by this change in policy,” says State Representative Renitta Shannon, Georgia House District 84. “With the Cole Memo AG Sessions is both out of step with everyday Americans who want to see an end to the harmful prosecutions for nonviolent drug offenses and out of step with his own Republican Party that rails against big government superseding states’ rights.”
Legislators on both sides of the aisle have been quick to condemn last week’s announcement – let’s hope that they are also prepared to support legislation that will decriminalize marijuana use and prosecution moving forward. The drug war is far from over.
Michelle Wright is a policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance whose work focuses on the South.