ATLANTA — Penalties associated with marijuana-felony convictions hit more than the fair share of blacks, according to a legislator who wants to limit the penalty for possession of any amount to a misdemeanor.
Sen. Harold Jones, D-Augusta, held a Capitol news conference Wednesday along with the chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus and groups supporting legalized marijuana.
Jones said a felony drug conviction also ends welfare benefits, the HOPE scholarship, professional licenses, the right to vote and eligibility to serve on juries.
“What this bill does do is bring people out of economic and social prison,” said Jones, a former city prosecutor.
Current law treats possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana as a misdemeanor, punishable by no more than a year in jail and a $1,000 fine. A conviction for having more than an ounce amounts to a felony with years behind bars and loss of government benefits and rights.
Black Caucus Chairwoman Dee Dawkins-Haigler, D-Lithonia, is sponsoring a similar bill in the House.
“African-Americans have received disproportionate convictions as it relates to marijuana possession,” she said. “We have to be honest, have a genuine conversation about disproportionate sentencing.”
Tom McCain, a retired Donaldson County sheriff’s deputy who is now executive director of the Spartacus Legal Foundation, which opposes “overcriminalization,” said black males are four times as likely as white males to be arrested for possession of marijuana.
The bill’s critics include the chairwoman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, Rep. Sharon Cooper.
“To not have a criminal offense for any amount of marijuana is just ludicrous because if you’re possessing a huge amount of marijuana, then you’re distributing it and getting other people addicted to it,” the Marietta Republican said.
Jones argues that his experience proves prosecutors have other ways of demonstrating when someone is selling marijuana, such as possession of scales and packaging.
He disagrees with Cooper’s assertions that marijuana can be harmful and is a “gateway drug” leading to more dangerous drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
If it is a gateway drug, he said, then users have a medical condition: addiction.
“We’re not talking about a person selling it. If a person has a medical problem, why are we putting the criminal-justice system into a medical question?” he asked.