Blunt message: Forest Park bags pot jail time, cuts fine

Forest Park is easing penalties for possessing less than 1 ounce of marijuana. (Photo: Robin Kemp)

FOREST PARK — After a lengthy and sometimes personal debate during Monday’s work session, the Forest Park City Council voted to end jail time for possession of marijuana under 1 ounce and to replace the $1,000 fine with a progressive series of lesser fines for repeat offenders.

Some councilmembers said they were not personally pro-marijuana but that they were representing the wishes of their constituents. Others said they and people they knew had been racially profiled by Forest Park police merely for driving through what police called known drug areas. And still others thought stiff fines were the way to go.

Councilwoman Kimberly James, Ward 1, said she was “completely on board” for not sending people to jail for less than an ounce, but that a proposed $75 fine was not enough to deter repeat offenders. James suggested creating two ordinances, one to address jail time and another to address fines.

While this was procedurally possible, according to City Attorney Michael Williams, it wasn’t necessary. He also said that he had spoken to officials in other cities, including Clarkston’s mayor, about instituting progressive fines.

Councilwoman Latresa Wells, Ward 4, said she would rather work out an agreement on the two issues, then put both into a single ordinance for a single vote.

James said she was recently in traffic court and saw a 23-year-old man who had moved to Clayton County from California. “He was out there, smoking weed with his pals, he got arrested. His dad’s a truck driver and he posted bond. Our sitting judge was on vacation, so it was a different judge. He (the young man) had to pay a fee of $1,040 and he had no money, so he got 12 months probation and 40 hours community service. I think that’s a bit excessive, in my opinion, but I don’t feel that $75 is enough.”

James also said that, among her constituents, feelings about changing the penalties for smoking marijuana weren’t defined by race or age.

“They say, ‘I grew up in the ’70s; we used to smoke weed all the time,” James said.

Wells said the Police Department could use its crime-fighting energies elsewhere.

“I spoke to a previous Forest Park officer, and he said they spend a lot of time on these things when they should be working on more serious things.”

Councilman Allan Mears, Ward 5, said being under the influence of marijuana was like drinking and driving.

“If you drink and drive, you’re still drunk,” Mears said. “You can’t deviate from the law. It’s not up to the officer — it’s either illegal or legal. The fine is to deter you from doing it again, not to give you a second or third chance but to burn you the first time so you don’t go back and do it again.”

Mears added pot wouldn’t be an issue “if kids were brought up properly by the parents.”

Wells responded, “You can raise your kids the best you can and still have problems. You don’t have to determine how high someone is. To get pulled over and pay $1,000 and go to jail for smoking a little blunt? I’m just saying the fine should match the crime.”

Councilman Dabouze Antoine, Ward 2, asked Mears, “Have you been to a restaurant, had a glass of wine and a nice meal, and get behind the wheel?”

Mears nodded.

“What about those who are punished and punished and punished for doing this?” Antoine said. “First of all, we can’t legalize it. Instead of jail, say it’s not OK to be smoking it, but give them a fine, decriminalize it. Even the president of the United States is considering it. If you put this on a referendum for the people of Forest Park, it will pass. Just like MARTA passed with over 75 percent of the vote in Clayton County.”

Wells agreed on the lower fine, saying, “It shouldn’t be $75 every time. I feel that it’s a ticket, not jail time. The ordinance reads, ‘if less than one ounce, $1000 and jail time.’ It should be ‘more.’”

Wells added that lowering fines was not the same thing as decriminalization.

Councilwoman Sandra Bagley, Ward 3, said she was concerned about distinguishing cannabis oil for medical purposes from recreational pot-smoking. “I’m in healthcare, and I worry about people with seizures, people with PTSD. If we’re going to put our officers and our judges in this position, right now recreational marijuana use is illegal, any possession, any amount. I don’t feel $75 is a deterrent.”

Bagley said that she did not think racial profiling was an issue in Forest Park.

“I don’t agree that our officers are profiling. I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’ve grown up here since 1979, and I have yet to meet a bad Forest Park officer.”

Some in the audience murmured.

Wells responded, “Unless you are affected by a cop pulling you over, you don’t think there’s a problem.”

Wells said she and members of her own family had been profiled by Forest Park officers. “My brother. Myself, while I was on Council. My son-in-law.”

Wells recounted an incident in which she was pulled over after a child pulled on her car door handle to give money for a trip to the store. “The officer said it was because I was in a ‘known drug area.’

“My son's girlfriend was pulled over, he was a star student at Forest Park High School, on the basketball team, he’s never done or sold drugs,” Wells said. “They pulled him over and asked to search his car. He said no. They searched it anyway, with dogs. Scratched the car up.

“All that’s to say, everything is not OK. And sadly, people are affected by this — blacks. I’m for my people. So these types of situations are why I feel the way I feel. So you may not feel that way, and you may not feel that way, but that’s how I feel.”

Antoine also said he felt high penalties for marijuana use had a racially-motivated component.

“Yes, it is a race thing,” Antoine said. “There are more meth houses than pot houses, and the meth heads are telling me this. So it is a race thing. I know what time it is.”

James and Wells haggled over what a progressive fine might look like. Wells suggested $75 for a first offense, $150 for a second offense, and $300 for a third.

“Maybe $300 max, or the judge’s discretion for the fourth (offense),” she said.

City Attorney Williams said, “All you need to do is make a motion to amend the ordinance (under consideration) to provide for that. Then you would only need one vote.”

Mayor Angelyne Butler asked about James’ idea of splitting the fine and jail time changes into two motions.

“If I move forward with the veto, would I have to veto it all? I like the aspect of no jail time, but I do think the fines need to be a little higher. I’ll say $200 and go up from there.”

Antoine said, “That’s not for the people, to me.”

James added, “Two hundred dollars for the first time, I think, is a little high.”

Wells said, “I can agree on $75, double, higher for the third time, but I’m not going to agree on $200 the first time.”

Antoine said, “If this is vetoed, newspaper lady, this goes to show the mayor is not for the people.”

James pointed out that high school students are responsible for a lot of marijuana violations.

“Also, about the old people, they have a lot of pressure, a lot of situations, and it’s their only way out to relax. I don’t smoke or drink, even though some people think I bought votes with alcohol, but that’s another story.”

Mayor Butler said, “I stand by Judge Freeman’s program with first offenders.”

Noting Freeman was not present when James witnessed the high marijuana penalty case, Butler said the city could find “a way to make sure we’re in sync with the first time, make sure the substitute judge follows that module. Again, I don’t think $200 is too low.”

“Not too low for you,” Antoine responded.

“This is about the people,” James said.

“People can barely afford to keep their lights on,” Antoine added.

Butler suggested this was a matter for public comment.

“They’re not here,” Antoine said. “The same people are here every time. This is about the people out there.”

When the council went to public comment, Carl Evans said, “You know where I stand. My last job was with the Department of Labor. Every recruiter said the number one problem with people from this area is they can’t pass a drug test,” adding, “If they have a roach in the ashtray, it’s probably not fair, but if you get caught by Fulton County or Clayton County, you’re going to jail.”

Dianne Lunsford said, “If you come across 285 and you already smoked two weeds, you come over here to Forest Park and you’ve only got a little bit less than half an ounce, you’re still putting my life at risk.”

Samuel Ibanez said the council was “missing the point. When you go to school or go to college, you have a bad history (under the old ordinance). Let’s grow up. Let’s make it happen.”

Ultimately, James moved to accept the progressive fine of $100, $300, and judge’s discretion on third offense. Wells seconded the motion.

“Jail?” asked Mayor Butler.

“No jail,” Wells replied.

The motion passed 3-2, with James, Antoine, and Wells voting for and Bagley and Mears voting against.

Later, when asked to comment on the exchange with Antoine, Mears said he’s never been arrested and never had a DUI, adding, “He was just throwing a rock at me.”

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