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.