Between 2014 and 2016, 92% of individuals arrested for marijuana possession it Atlanta, Georgia were black in a place where only 17% of constituents make up that particular demographic.

Recognizing that there is a significant problem with criminalization of marijuana, especially when it is so racialized, Atlanta’s City Council voted unanimously earlier this week to decriminalize marijuana possession within the city’s limits.

What Does Decriminalization Mean?

Oftentimes, when the term decriminalization gets tossed around, it’s usually misinterpreted to mean legal. In Atlanta and the state of Georgia, it is still not legal to carry marijuana, or sell it, or grow it. Decriminalization simply means that those who are caught with possession of marijuana will not experience jail time.

Presently in Atlanta, possession of marijuana is subject to six months of jail time and a $1000 fine.

What decriminalization means, too, is that those who have previously been convicted for possession of marijuana in the area will have their records expunged. In addition, those who are currently incarcerated will have an avenue through which they can appeal their convictions and sentences.

This will allow people to clean up their criminal records so to not face a barrier to employment, which often becomes a problem, even for people who may have been caught possessing marijuana ten or twenty years ago.

It’s important to note, that this decriminalization is only applicable to the Atlanta City Limits, where those possessing marijuana outside these boundaries can still face criminal charges.

The Move to Decriminalize

The racial disparities that have become so glaringly obvious in the problem of the criminalization of marijuana was a huge reason why Councilman Kwanza Hall pushed for the ordinance to be approved in Atlanta’s City Council.

In an interview with V-103, a local station, Hall said,

“Currently, we are seeing families torn apart. We’re seeing young people lose their scholarships, we’re seeing people become unemployable, all because of possession of less than an ounce. And primarily the neighborhoods, the zip codes, the people are people of color living in parts of our city that have been left behind, that have been neglected, and they are being penalized greater than anyone else.”

While the vote was unanimously approved in Atlanta City Council, members warned about potential dangers of not fully educating on what decriminalization of marijuana possession in Atlanta means. Councilwoman Keisha Lance-Bottoms stated, “I don’t want some college kid to think they are within their rights to posses marijuana in Atlanta, get arrested, resist arrest and, God forbid, the worst happens,” alluding to the numerous instances of racialized police brutality.

Decriminalization a Start Towards Legalization

It’s important to recognize that decriminalization doesn’t always equate to legalization or liberalized views on marijuana legalization. While there are 8 states that have legalized adult use or recreational marijuana, states like Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio have decriminalization laws yet show no signs of a move towards legalization.

With any movement of marijuana legislation, though, the cannabis community must embrace these wins as we seek to spread marijuana policy reform worldwide.