Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Atlanta has long been known as a convention city. The logistics of having the world’s busiest airport aid in bringing groups of many sizes and interests to meet together here. A relatively small meeting that will take place Friday and Saturday probably should get more attention than it will. At least, the group hopes to provoke some thought and discussion among those of us who make Georgia home.
The Southern Cannabis Reform Conference will be held Friday and Saturday to promote changing marijuana laws. Various groups have been meeting and staging publicity stunts over the topic since the 60’s. Most have been dismissed as frustrated counter culture hippies that are out of place in our structured law abiding society. And many of them were.
We will caveat here that this column is not to advocate for or against changing the laws. Frankly, Georgia’s people will have to have a long conversation among themselves before this would even be within the realm of possibility. To many, the thought of even discussing the topic would be an abomination with the chance of passage equal to that of operating a successful unicorn farm.
And yet, while Georgians have mostly held tight to this public attitude, two states have legalized marijuana all together and eighteen states and the District of Columbia have now legalized “medical marijuana”. In most, the “medical” part of that title is a mere formality. It generally only requires getting a doctor to write a prescription diagnosing “anxiety” or “chronic pain” and then using said prescription to get an official card that allows the purchase of weed and marijuana based products at various dispensaries in those states.
In most, the process is highly regulated. Colorado went so far as to demand that 70% of all marijuana be grown on the site of the dispensary, addressing the concern that the retail legalization was merely codifying a lawful distribution system for the very unlawful activities of drug cartels which now dominate production.
By doing so, Colorado has experienced the growth of an entirely new domestic industry. And with it, new tax revenues, a new base of jobs, and without any perceptible increase in crime or motor vehicle issues.
It is the contrast between that reality and Georgia’s decision to continue to prosecute individuals for even small amounts of marijuana that will over time capture the attention worthy of public debate. Under current laws, states such as California, Washington and Colorado make money off of marijuana. Georgia spends a lot of money because of it.
Quietly and without the word marijuana in the headlines, Georgia has already made tiny steps in closing this gap. The criminal justice reform passed last year reduced the sentences on many crimes related to marijuana. At the root of the measure was the desire to spend less money on prisons, but also to remove felony convictions from offenders’ records with minor drug infractions.
Not staining an individual’s “permanent record” over incidents that are now perfectly legal in other states was a primary motivation. Felony records and long prison sentences prohibit many forms of employment, place a ceiling on upward mobility, and reduce the long term tax contributions a person can make long after an arrest for a small amount of marijuana. The state now has the official position that many of these prosecutions hurt Georgia’s coffers on both the expense and revenue sides.
Time will likely be required before Georgia is willing to engage in this conversation. And yet, the thought of Georgia allowing legalization in some form is no longer a guaranteed laugh line.
Just two years ago, the thought of Georgia’s social conservative base allowing legalized gambling here was equally unthinkable. This year, a bill allowing the Georgia Lottery Corp to regulate video poker machines – and thus giving tacit legislative approval to GLC regulating casino gambling – is sailing through the legislature with little public comment.
Most other states have casinos, and Georgia apparently isn’t willing to let morals get in the way of retrieving lost revenue. As legalized marijuana becomes more common in other states – states that are creating jobs, growing tax revenue, and shrinking prison budgets – Georgia may also come to a point where it is willing to look the other way on this issue too.