Getting caught with cannabis in Macon-Bibb County just isn’t as big of a deal as it used to be.
Previously, you could pick up a $1,000 fine and serve up to a year in jail. Earlier this year, however, county commissioners voted to reduce the penalty to a $75 ticket for an ounce or less of pot with no possibility of jail time.
That's only because the Macon-Bibb County commission and local law enforcement have agreed in principle not to enforce Georgia's drug laws to the full extent of the law. Cannabis possession is still as illegal in Georgia as it's ever been, in Macon or elsewhere.
The vote passed just 5-4 in a commission meeting May 22. Some community members in the room applauded when Al Tillman, Virgil Watkins, Elaine Lucas, Bert Bivins and 2020 mayoral candidate Larry Schlesinger voted to pass it. It’s not a pathway to total legalization, they said, but a way to avoid incarcerating people for using a drug with potential medicinal benefits.
“I just want to make sure that we give good children, children who are guilty of adolescent mischief or youthful indiscretion -- I just want to make sure that we give them the full chance that they have to succeed in this world, going forward without being dogged for the rest of their lives by an indiscretion, a mischief act that they will outgrow,” Schlesinger said.
For Watkins, racial justice was a major factor in supporting the ordinance. He said most young folks who use cannabis are dealing with stress or mental health conditions, and that black men receive disproportionately severe penalties for marijuana possession in Macon.
The other commissioners in favor said local law enforcement felt the old fines were excessive, and eliminating the possibility of jail time for a small amount of weed would allow for a better use of police resources.
“In doing the research and talking to so many people, this is probably the first municipality that you had the sheriff’s office, the district attorney’s office, the solicitor general’s office, to not come out and fight us tooth-and-nail on this,” Tillman, who proposed the penalty reduction, added.
On the other hand, commissioners Scotty Shepherd, Joe Allen, Mallory Jones and Valerie Wynn said that minimizing the consequences would undermine efforts to keep children away from marijuana, open a gateway to drug abuse and encourage more crime.
Commissioner Jones cited another reason to vote against it: response from the community.
“There are over 200 churches in Macon-Bibb County. Have you heard from one that wants to think this is a good idea? I don't think so,” he said.
But Macon residents remain divided. Pamela Earls has mixed emotions on the penalty reduction. She said that it will benefit young or first-time offenders who may use small amounts, but it’s important to remember how cannabis can affect the developing brain in people younger than 25.
“As a medical professional, I’m not happy about the easy access of marijuana,” Earls said. “I don’t want it to be promoted that there are no side effects or long-term complications from marijuana use, because we know that there are.”
Not everyone is concerned about it either way. Craig Mycoski is a Colorado native who recently moved to Macon. Where he’s from, marijuana has been legal for medical use since 2000 and recreational purposes since 2012.
“At first, everybody thinks it’s a very big deal, and then after time goes on, it really becomes a non-issue. Nobody talks about it anymore,” he said. “If it’s helping the officers focus on other things that are worse issues, then I’m all for it.”
However, local law enforcement can still choose to charge those in possession of marijuana if they believe it’s intended for sale or distribution. They may also decide to employ the state law prohibiting any amount of marijuana if they see fit.
Despite divided attitudes, cannabis may still have a future in Georgia. Macon is now the tenth municipality to reduce the penalty for low-level possession, joining Statesboro, Savannah, Clarkston, Atlanta and more. Close to home, Fort Valley State University is one of two state schools chosen under Governor Brian Kemp’s Georgia Hope Act to grow, research and produce the plant for medical use.