Assessing ATL’s Marijuana “Decriminalization” Bill

Published by Henry Thomas on

Assessing ATL's Marijuana “Decriminalization” Law

In October 2017, the Atlanta City Council passed ordinance (17-O-1152), a law that made the possession of less than an ounce of weed a ticketable offense within city limits.

Often referred to as the marijuana “decriminalization” bill, it gives Atlanta police officers the option to refer those caught with less than an ounce of marijuana to the courts. The courts are then required to issue a $75 fine, with no jail time.

The misleading name stems from the discretion that police officers use when enforcing the Atlanta law. Rather than referring offenders to the courts, officers can choose to enforce the law of the State of Georgia, which includes a fine up to $1,000 and imprisonment for up to six months.

In other words, the bill is colloquially referred to be a “decriminalization” policy when in fact it’s an open-ended rule that allows an officer discretion: To arrest, or not to arrest you. One can still technically be a criminal under this bill for the same “crime” that another person could get off for, if the officer sees it fit. That is not truly decriminalization.

We took a look at physical arrest rates and ratios in the wake of the marijuana “decriminalization” bill. The results are telling of how the Atlanta Police Department (APD) has chosen to enforce the law.


Former Councilman Kwanza Hall authored the bill and called it a “straight-forward policy that will help reduce the inequities that our justice system levies on people of color. It won’t solve the problem in its entirety, but it is a strong step forward.”

Hall was referring to the wide disparity between blacks and whites for marijuana arrests.

In 2016, a year and 10 months before the bill was signed into law, a total of 686 people were physically arrested and booked for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, according to the APD.

Out of that statistic, 641 blacks and 19 whites were arrested for that crime.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that blacks made up 52.4% and whites made up 40.1% of Atlanta’s population in 2016. Additionally, census data shows little to no difference in consumption of marijuana between blacks and whites.

If you were to do the math, before the introduction of ordinance (17-O-1152) blacks were 25 times more likely to be physically arrested and booked than whites for possessing small amounts of marijuana in Atlanta.

The bill was signed into law on October 11, 2017, by former Mayor Kasim Reed. He noted that the APD’s resources are more suited to prevent high risks to public safety.

“People of color, young and low-income people are disproportionately jailed… for possessing small amounts of marijuana… I believe our public safety resources are better directed to stopping and preventing violent crime,” Mayor Reed said in a press release.


During 2017, a total of 680 people were arrested, six less than in 2016, meaning the number of physical arrests decreased by less than one percent.

Of the 680, 629 were black and 26 were white, with a one percent decrease in the black population ratio and no difference in the white population ratio.

As a result, blacks were 18 times more likely than whites to be arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

In 2018, 804 people were physically arrested and booked for possession of less than an ounce; 759 blacks and 32 whites were arrested.

The 2018 population data is uncertain, but assuming that no major influx ensued [there was only a .1% change in the black population a year before], blacks remain roughly 18 times more likely to be physically arrested and booked for marijuana possession.

As former Councilman Hall predicted, the “decriminalization” bill appears to be a step in the right direction in repairing the racial inequity of Atlanta’s justice system. A 28% decrease in disparity between blacks and whites between 2016-2018 is praiseworthy.

However, the reduction in disparity plateaued, with blacks remaining 18 times more likely to be arrested for possession of less than an ounce in 2017 and 2018. Atlanta will need to see legislation that actually decriminalizes the possession of weed, as opposed to a discretionary policy exercised by officers, to continue that positive trend.

The high amount of arrests for the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana in 2018 shows a 17% increase in physical arrests over a three-year period.

It is important to recognize, however, that those arrests include secondary charges. Carlos Campos, the APD Director of Public Affairs, said, “It should be noted that some of the arrests for marijuana possession are often linked to other crimes. For example, an officer may arrest an individual for breaking into a car, or burglarizing a home, and the suspect is found to have marijuana on them when searched during arrest. In such a case, the arrest for marijuana would essentially be a secondary charge.”

Secondary charges often equate to citations, which are a natural result of the legislation. In 2017, there are 367 copies of charges [people who did not go to jail, but were booked for a crime] for the possession of less than an ounce. In 2018, that number nearly tripled to 1082. Therefore, police officers are giving out more tickets for marijuana possession.

It is unclear if more people in Atlanta are smoking more marijuana, or if the APD has started to crack down harder on the people that do. In any case, the data shows that the citizens of Atlanta are more likely to be charged for small amounts of marijuana, but in a less damaging or discriminatory way.



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