Best New City Initiative

Decriminalization of Marijuana

If one of the City of Savannah’s least popular initiatives last year dealt with fire – the onerous and regressive fire fee aimed at shoring up municipal finances – then one of its most popular initiatives dealt with smoke – making it a little easier to possess marijuana.

“This is an issue that crosses political, ethnic, age and other boundaries,” says Alderman Van Johnson, the City Council member who shepherded the pot proposal from smoker’s dream to reality. “It’s pretty clear that now is the time to look at this differently.”

And just to be clear, this is only a pot smoker’s dream in the sense that we’re living in Savannah bleeping Georgia and anything mildly less retrograde and embarrassing than “round ‘em up in my pickup truck” (another issue, I digress) seems like progress.

The City of Savannah is not decriminalizing marijuana possession, contrary to headlines using that word. It’s still illegal to possess marijuana in the City of Savannah. Only now, police officers can – instead of arresting you – fine you $150 for having an ounce or less.

“It’s a criminal justice issue because our police officers spend an inordinate amount of time right now arresting someone,” Johnson says. “It takes hours to take someone off the street for a simple possession when clearly there are other things that they can be doing.”

And when we say police officers in this story, we’re referring only to City of Savannah police officers, not Chatham County Police or Georgia State Patrol. Even in the City of Savannah, officers from other jurisdictions still can arrest you for simple possession.

Nevertheless, seen from the darkness of a cold planet spinning light years away from distant stars abbreviated AK CA CO MA ME NV OR VT WA, Savannah’s initiative to treat marijuana more like a traffic offense than a dirty crime shines like a bright sun.

“If someone’s not arrested and they’re able to get their lives together, find a job, find housing and perhaps go to college, then we’ve created opportunities for people to be successful.” Johnson says. “I think that’s what government is supposed to be about.”

Given the 600 arrests that Savannah made for simple possession in recent years, this could change the lives of thousands of people. For Johnson, it was a rare high point in a year that often found him outside of a council majority on big issues like the fire fee.

“Understanding the current tenor of council, to get an 8-1 vote was significant,” he says. – Orlando Montoya

Runner-up: DOT Free Shuttle