Marijuana Reforms Still Under Rural Influence

This week’s Courier Herald column:

I was asked recently by a millennial friend if there were any Republican leaders in Georgia that realize there is a national shift underway toward the legalization of marijuana, and if Georgia wants to get ahead of the curve and be a leader among Southeastern states.  Setting aside his premise that Georgia needs to follow the lead of the left coast, the fact of the matter is that Georgia has made moves over the past several years toward the legalization of medical marijuana including in-state cultivation.

The beginning of the legislative process was championed by former State Representative Allen Peake, a Republican.  Early bills were also supported by former Republican State Senator Josh McKoon, a darling among social conservatives.  For the past several years, new bills have become law that have expanded the ability to access cannabis products for medicinal purposes, as well as grow hemp for commercial purposes.

It was Republican majorities in both Georgia’s House and Senate, and Republican Governors signing various bills into law.  It’s incorrect to say that Republicans are blind to the changes in attitudes toward marijuana in general.

Still, virtually no one in Georgia leadership is talking about widespread legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes.  This isn’t likely to change in the immediate future.  The divisions on this bridge too far are rooted in both geography and demographics. 

In-town urban millennials have very different views on recreational use pot than do their rural grandparents whose views on the subject are best expressed in the film “Reefer Madness”.  Yet as other states exert federalism and declare the drug legal, there is a real-world clash on the subject as Georgia is still putting people in jail for owning or using a product that is now legal in ten states.

Millennial opinions dominate today’s media.  Older generations’ views dominate the ballot box.  Elected officials understand this divide well, and proceed with caution when attitudes on a controversial subject begin to shift.

Because marijuana for recreational use is still against federal law, this is inherently a law enforcement issue.  State leaders have difficulty asking officers to decide which set of laws they wish to ignore while enforcing others. 

This mindset has built-in inertia.  Almost half of the state’s population lives in the ten county metro Atlanta area, with newer residents moving in every day.  Many of these people are younger than the state average, and tend to have views more accepting of marijuana use.

Georgia is a state with 159 counties, however.  Each of these counties has a sheriff, and most of them are steadfast against any leniency toward recreational marijuana.  For any understanding of the politics of criminal justice matters, one has to understand the rural dominance of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association and how that impacts the sheriffs’ influence on legislation.

This makes a video posted to Facebook by Bibb County Sheriff David Davis last week intriguing.  He posted in support of a local measure to decriminalize possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.  Those found with small amounts of marijuana will receive a ticket for a $75 fine, rather than receiving a criminal charge that will follow them on their permanent record.

While Davis is elected as a Democrat (as Sheriff is a partisan race on Georgia ballots), he easily won re-election with roughly 80% of the votes against two opponents in 2016, and was unopposed in 2012.  He also represents Macon, which isn’t exactly “rural”, but is more identifiable to rural Georgians than ideas on criminal justice that come out of Atlanta.

In marking the attitude change toward marijuana with respect to legalization and criminal justice reform, Davis’ public support of a small decriminalization measure likely marks a bit of a sea change.  It’s not likely we will see statewide action until the federal government re-classifies marijuana, but a pragmatic middle-Georgia law enforcement officer stating decriminalization will result in less crime rather than more marks a turning point.

Folks looking for change should spend less time finding younger, urban and suburban voices to champion this cause.  Change will come if more of Sheriff Davis’ peers decide to agree with his position.


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