COVINGTON, Ga. - The debate over marijuana decriminalization came to Covington Wednesday evening when the city council discussed lessening the penalty for marijuana possession less than an ounce in the city during a work session.
City manager Leigh Anne Knighton said the issue was placed on the agenda for the council’s mid-week at the request of council member Anthony Henderson.
Henderson said the current law disproportionately impacts young people.
“I work inside of the jail and I see numerous times young adults, college students, kids that are still in high school, sometimes just people in general. The problem we have is that one ounce, it’s not a threat, it’s not a problem I feel it poses for the community,” he said, “Most of the time with this, one ounce, the percentage is more so harmful to African Americans.”
Henderson said the fines and fees for the offense, which can total $1432, including $750 for the plus assorted court costs, disproportionately harm people without the ability to pay them.
“The penalty for it is too much,” he said, “Keep in mind, if you’re a college student or a high school student, how can you pay that citation?
Police Chief Stacey Cotton said the first time fine for possession is $750, plus state mandated charges.
“$750 is what the fine is,” he said, “by the time you get all the add-ons, which is about forty percent it comes out to $1432. You could change the fine to $500 and you’d have to figure the percentages as an add-on to that.”
Henderson said the Cities of Atlanta and South Fulton have passed measures lessening the penalty for possession of less than an ounce. He suggested a method of warn, help and then hold accountable.
“I think we should reduce the fine for the first time. The second time, add on to the fine but make them enroll in some sort of drug counseling and third time hold accountable.”
Councilmember Josh McKelvey said, “We’re looking at non-violent, misdemeanor, less than an ounce of marijuana. If someone gets caught walking with a joint or driving down the road with a joint, do we take those people to jail?”
Henderson said, “I can guarantee everyone’s family has got at least one person that smokes marijuana. I can guarantee that.”
Cotton said police don’t have any choice except to take people caught with any amount of marijuana to jail.
“It’s not as simple as just saying ‘let’s change what we do.’”, he said, “It’s a criminal law. It’s a state law. The reason why a person gets arrested for possession of marijuana less than an ounce is because it’s a state law. And because it’s a state law, it’s a fingerprintable offense. So they have to be taken to the county jail and at least fingerprinted.
“We don’t set that standard. The state does. So if you arrest somebody for possession of marijuana less than an ounce, they’ve got to go to jail and be fingerprinted. Even if they’re released on a ticket, and you could do that.”
Cotton also presented statistics since 2014 showing that most marijuana arrests in Covington involve people from outside the city.
“There were 983 charges made. 933 individuals were arrested in total. 887 individuals were charged with marijuana possession less than an ounce,” he said, “Twenty six percent of the individuals arrested lived within the city limits of Covington. Seventy four percent of those arrested lived outside of Covington.
“Of the 933 people arrested, only 26 percent were your citizens from here inside city limits. The telling number is 691, or 74 percent of the people arrested are coming to your city and bringing their dope to your city. And when they’re doing other crimes, they’re doing other crimes in your town with weed in their pocket.”
“McKelvey suggested seeing how lessening penalties has worked in other cities.
“Let’s don’t be eager to get out ahead and be big dog with Atlanta, “he said, “There’s a couple of other cities that have already done this. Let’s see those results, let’s study those results, let’s see how it affects those communities before we jump off the ledge.
“It’s something I thing we can continually talk about and get more data. I’d love to even get some more opinion of the community.”
The council took no action on the issue.