When Mayor Ted Terry talks about the recent decision by him and the Clarkston City Council to dramatically reduce the penalty for the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, he is careful to make one distinction to his interviewer.
“It’s not decriminalization,” Terry insists.
No, but it’s close. In every other jurisdiction in Georgia, a person arrested on a charge of simple possession of marijuana would be subject to a fine of as much as $1,000 and jail time up to a year, as well as having a criminal record.
But in Clarkston, a DeKalb County municipality that straddles the railroad tracks east of Atlanta, the crime of marijuana possession amounts to little more than a traffic ticket.
“What we’re saying is, no jail, no court costs, you pay the $75 fine,” Terry said. And that’s it.
Anyone who ever lived in the “old” Clarkston would be shocked to learn that their former habitat has suddenly become one of the most progressive cities this side of San Francisco.
When I lived there during the 1960s, where I graduated from Clarkston High School, it was a conservative area that was nearly all white and had only recently made the transition from rural to suburban.
In those days, the most exciting event in town was the annual football game with arch rival Tucker High, which was usually followed by a fight in the school parking lot. “We may not have won the game,” students would say. “But we won the fight.”
Over the years, however, Clarkston has changed.
The city has become a favorite landing spot for refugees who find housing in the large number of apartment complexes that sprouted like mushrooms across the city and make Clarkston the most diverse municipality in Georgia. At the elementary school, I am told, you’ll hear students speaking more than 80 different languages or dialects.
Clarkston made headlines last year when Gov. Nathan Deal tried to close off the city and, in turn, the entire state to Syrian refugees whom he claimed would bring in Muslim terrorists.
Terry was quite the opposite, welcoming Syrians who resettled in the city and pointing out that Clarkston’s Muslim residents had not been involved in any terroristic incidents. He prevailed on this particular issue, as Deal finally conceded he could not legally stop Syrians from coming to Georgia.
This year, other liberal issues have come before a city council that reflects Clarkston’s diversity: It is majority black, and two of its members are originally from Somalia and Eritrea.
In April, the city started floating the idea of reducing the penalties for marijuana and finally voted to do so in early July. Mayor Terry signed the ordinance as soon as it was adopted, so it took effect immediately.
One of the prime motivations for introducing the new ordinance, Terry said, was the fact that many of the city’s resettled refugees work in low-paying jobs. “The standard fine for simple possession was $600 or $700, and for minimum wage workers that is close to a month’s salary,” he said.
“On the advice of the city attorney, we set it at $75,” Terry said. “The $75 fine isn’t excessive, but it isn’t trivial. We understand marijuana use is still illegal under federal and state law. I think it’s still a reasonable enough punishment, but you don’t want to bankrupt somebody.”
It may be reasonable to some, but perhaps not to everyone.
When the news about Clarkston’s marijuana plans first surfaced, Deal told a reporter: “We should not have any municipality or jurisdiction of state government saying that they’re willing to flaunt the law to downgrade or excuse what is otherwise criminal conduct. I do not approve of that, and I do not agree with the posture they are apparently trying to take.”
Deal is currently on a junket to Germany, but I’m sure he will try to do something about the Clarkston ordinance when he returns to Georgia. Legislators and district attorneys may also have something to say about it.
I don’t know how long the marijuana ordinance will remain in effect, but while it does, Clarkston can certainly call itself the most liberal city in Georgia.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.