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What does Atlanta's marijuana decriminalization law do?

On Oct. 2, the Atlanta City Council voted unanimously to reduce the penalties for the possession of small amounts of marijuana. This brings the city into line with a growing number of larger cities that have decriminalized cannabis possession within city limits.

The new Atlanta ordinance doesn't actually legalize personal use of marijuana. Instead, it limits the potential penalty for those who violate the law:

  • The maximum fine for possessing an ounce or less of marijuana had been $1,000. It will now be $75.
  • Six months of jail time had been the penalty for having an ounce or less. Jail time has now been eliminated entirely.

One reason for decriminalizing low-level use of the drug is that enforcement has been uneven -- often to the detriment of African-Americans. According to the Racial Justice Action Center in East Point, whites and African-Americans use weed at approximately the same rate. However, African-Americans are arrested and charged at a much higher rate than whites.

Between 2014 and 2016, the group says, 92 percent of people arrested in Atlanta for marijuana possession were African-American, and 85 percent were male.

"Today we stand with every parent of Atlanta who is fearful of or has seen their children's lives destroyed, or careers ruined because of a racist policy that unjustly incarcerated minorities by more than ninety percent," said city councilman Kwanza Hall.

Is a $75 fine the only potential penalty for possessing an ounce or less of weed in Atlanta?

No. It's important to keep in mind that marijuana is still illegal under federal law. The federal penalties for possessing an ounce or less of marijuana depend on a number of factors, including criminal history. A first offense can result in a $1,000 fine and a year in prison. A second offense could result in a $2,500 fine and up to two years in prison. Subsequent offenses are treated more harshly.

Additionally, being convicted of a drug offense could have far-reaching consequences on your life. For example, if you are an immigrant, a conviction could set the process of deportation in motion.

If you are charged with possession of marijuana, do not simply pay the fine and hope for the best. Doing so counts as a conviction. Before you make any decision, we urge you to contact a lawyer.

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