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Policing protests propel marijuana decriminalization efforts

Some lawmakers say that reducing marijuana-related penalties would reduce unnecessary confrontations between police and minorities


State Senator Liz Krueger, right, with supporters of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) rally on the steps of New York City Hall on November 21, 2019.

Photo/Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden/Sipa USA/TNS

By Sophie Quinton

WASHINGTON — Georgia’s strict drug laws encourage police officers to search for drugs during otherwise routine interactions, such as traffic stops, said Georgia state Sen. Harold Jones II, a Democrat and former prosecutor. That increases the odds of encounters escalating and turning violent.

“I just see so many interactions between police and citizens that are based on drug interactions — trying to find narcotics,” said Jones, who has put forward a bill that would reduce penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

“We as legislators are putting (police) in that situation,” he said, “because we’re demanding that they enforce this.”

Lawmakers and advocates who want to legalize marijuana, reduce penalties for possession or clear people’s criminal records of pot-related offenses have argued for years that drug policy is a social justice issue.

Now, as protests against racism and aggressive policing of Black and Hispanic neighborhoods sweep the nation, some lawmakers are making a related argument: Reducing marijuana penalties would reduce unnecessary confrontations between police and minority residents.

In New York, some lawmakers have brought up marijuana legalization as they discuss ways to improve policing, said Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Democrat and sponsor of a bill to legalize marijuana sales.

“Many, many of my colleagues are bringing that up as a topic, as have I,” she said. “There’s no question that some of the things that are going on with law enforcement are because they smell marijuana.”

Some law enforcement groups remain opposed to liberalizing marijuana laws, however.

The elected sheriffs represented by the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association have opposed legalizing marijuana for years because they view it as a dangerous drug, said the association’s executive director, J. Terry Norris.

“It’s their opinion that (marijuana is) a much more dangerous substance than some may have you believe,” he said.

Norris added that — regardless of marijuana policy — both law enforcement officers and the residents they interact with have a role to play in avoiding violent confrontations. “If you obey the law … there’s not much chance you’re going to get hurt.”

In most states, there won’t be further action on marijuana laws this year, as legislative sessions are over. Jones’ bill, for instance, was included in Georgia Senate Democrats’ list of ideas for addressing police brutality but didn’t get a hearing before the state legislature adjourned in June.

Norris said that he didn’t discuss the bill with the association’s members. “I didn’t even pose the question to them, because the bill had no real chance.”

In many states, Republican legislators remain staunchly opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana sales or reducing penalties for pot possession. In Wisconsin, for instance, a decriminalization bill failed to advance this session.

“There’s no chance Republicans are going to go for recreational marijuana,” Republican state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said last spring, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. “We’re not going to decriminalize it so people can carry around baggies of weed all over the state.”

Neither Peoples-Stokes’ bill nor its Senate companion advanced to a vote before the New York legislature adjourned June 10. Although Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in January that he’d make marijuana legalization a priority, the coronavirus pandemic and accompanying recession and budget crisis ended up consuming lawmakers’ time.

But some marijuana bills with a racial justice focus have advanced in recent weeks. New Jersey lawmakers are debating two decriminalization proposals, including one approved by the state Assembly.

Democratic Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill last week that allows people who have committed certain marijuana-related crimes or have a low income to qualify for special marijuana business licenses. The bill also allows the governor to pardon defendants convicted of possessing up to 2 ounces of marijuana.

The legislature approved the bill six days after it was introduced, on the last day of a session interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“Had we not seen the protests that we did, I’m not sure that that equity bill would have been introduced this year,” said Colorado state Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Democrat who added the pardoning measure.

Today adults can legally use small amounts of marijuana in 11 states and Washington, D.C., and people with certain health conditions can purchase or grow pot for medical use in 33 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Lawmakers in 11 states that have legalized medical marijuana also have eliminated jail time for possessing the drug in small amounts, as have four states that don’t allow medical or recreational pot sales, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for legalization.

But penalties remain more stringent elsewhere. Possessing an ounce of marijuana or less in Georgia is considered a misdemeanor, punishable by a year’s incarceration and as much as a $1,000 fine. Possessing more than an ounce is a felony, as is cultivating, selling or distributing the drug.

Jones’ bill, which he plans to return to next year, would reduce penalties to a $300 fine for someone caught with half an ounce of marijuana or less and turn possession of under 2 ounces from a felony to a misdemeanor.

In New Jersey, possessing 50 grams of pot or less is punishable with up to six months in prison and as much as a $1,000 fine. Possessing more, or distributing or cultivating marijuana, can lead to years in prison and tens of thousands of dollars in fines.

The state Assembly has approved a bill that would reduce penalties for possessing 10 grams of marijuana or less to a $50 fine, with all Assembly Democrats and 13 Republicans voting in favor. Ten Republicans voted against.

In the Senate, a separate decriminalization bill would lower penalties for possessing and distributing up to 1 pound of marijuana and eliminate some penalties for being under the influence. It also would prevent police officers from using the smell of marijuana as the sole justification for searching, arresting or detaining someone, among other provisions.

New Jersey state Senate President Pro Tempore M. Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat and author of the second bill, said that while current events didn’t inspire her legislation, it’s aligned with nationwide calls for racial justice and changes to policing.

“Did this come out now because of what has happened? No,” she said. “But is this critically needed now, because of what has happened? The answer is yes.”

New Jersey residents will vote on legalizing marijuana sales in November.

Some decriminalization advocates caution that further action will be needed to address unfair policing.

While fewer people are arrested for marijuana-related crimes in states that have legalized pot sales or decriminalized possession, Black people still are more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related crimes in those states than white people are, according to an April report from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Nationwide, Black people are 3.6 times as likely to be arrested for a marijuana-related offense as white people, according to the report. Both groups use pot at similar rates.

Even in states that allow marijuana sales, certain activities remain illegal, such as smoking a joint in public or selling to minors.

Police in those states remain more likely to crack down on people of color for breaking the law, said Charlotte Resing, a policy analyst at the ACLU. That means that efforts to change marijuana laws must be paired with broader legislation that changes how communities are policed, she said.

“We’re going to continue to see these racial disparities,” she said, “until we see a policing system that looks drastically different than it does right now.”