SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – In a nearly unanimous vote, Savannah City Council voted on Thursday to lessen the penalties for simple possession of marijuana within city limits.
The vote was not to discuss possible legalization of marijuana. The drug is still illegal in the state of Georgia.
Still, Alderman Van Johnson has been resolute in his pursuit to curb the fallout of marijuana arrests.
“It’s an opportunity to increase education, employment, housing,” he said.
His proposal included giving Savannah Police Officer the discretion to have a choice of giving someone a $150 fine with no jail time. Further punishment or actions like community service would be up to the discretion of a judge or an officer. In addition, he proposed that 20% of the fines be given to a local rehabilitation facility/organization to offset drug treatment costs.
“For those who have gotten caught, now it’s not a death sentence,” Johnson said. “That they don’t have an arrest record which sometimes can hurt them later on. We’ve all done things that we wish we had done better of when we got older, we’ve come into ourselves, we could have make smart choices, we’re trying not to crucify people for the rest of their lives for a mistake that they’ve made.”
He says this will revamp society as a whole and help to boost a generation out from poverty and social injustice.
“Criminal justice professionals have been saying for quite some time that of all the ethnicities basically use marijuana at the same rate but when it came to arrests African Americans were were arrested at a much higher rate,” Johnson said.
According to the ACLU, Blacks have been four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.
During Thursday’s debate, not all the council members saw this as a moment for social change.
“We do not need to encourage people to come to Savannah because we’re only going to give you a ticket,” Alderman Brian Foster said.”We’re going to have people sitting down on benches smoking marijuana.”
Foster has an ally in Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher.
“I have no problem with what y’all will do, but my officers will cite them and they will go to jail,” he said.
In the end, Foster was the only ‘No’ vote. Council voted 8-1 to pass the marijuana ordinance.
Despite his victory, Johnson had a reminder for the city’s youth.
“Don’t smoke marijuana,” he said. “On the other end of it, those who have gotten caught, this is not a death sentence,” Johnson said.
After Thursday’s vote, Savannah becomes the third city in the state to lessen marijuana penalties for small amounts.
Now, SPD officers must be trained in policy and discretion. While Savannah will change, current state laws will still be enforced for the rest of Chatham County. The law goes into effect July 1st.