Delgado to submit proposal for decriminalization of less than 30 grams pot

By HASKEL BURNS,

Under current Mississippi state law, possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana calls for a fine of $100-$250, with increasing fines – and possible jail time – for subsequent offenses.

For the last several months, Hattiesburg City Councilwoman Deborah Delgado has been working to lessen those punishments in Hattiesburg, and intends to soon submit a proposal to decriminalize the simple possession of 30 grams or less in the city. Under that proposal, marijuana would still be illegal in Hattiesburg, with fines and simple citations issued for the offense, but incarceration would not be among the penalties.

Delgado invited Zakiya Summers, who serves as Director of Communications and Advocacy at the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, to a recent city council meeting to speak on the matter and give council members and the public insight on what the proposal would mean.

“I’m thankful for the input that I have got from the public consistently,” Delgado told council members. “Quite frankly, I wanted someone to come (to the meeting) today, because I’ve had so many people get back to me to say, ‘Well, what are you going to do? Where are we and what’s the decision made in this regard?’

“I think that it would be prudent to give additional information to the council and see whether you have any questions whether you might want to ask.”

Summers said the enforcement of current marijuana laws generates some of the justice system’s most glaring racial disparities, referring to the ACLU’s “The War on Marijuana in Black and White” report. According to that report, more than 8 million marijuana arrests were made in the United States between 2001 and 2010.

The report goes on to state that enforcing marijuana laws costs the country approximately $3.6 billion a year while failing to diminish the use or availability of marijuana. In addition, although the amount of marijuana use is roughly equal between blacks and whites, black individuals are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than are whites.

Summers said that number is even higher in Forrest County, where blacks are 6.3 times more likely to be arrested than whites in the county.

“This details the staggering racial bias and financial waste of our country’s counterproductive fight against a drug rightly considered less harmful than alcohol,” she said. “In addition to its unfairness, the war on marijuana is a colossal waste of resources, with states spending billions of dollars and devoting thousands of hours of police work to it.

“The ACLU of Mississippi believes that Hattiesburg is on the right path to consider an ordinance regarding the simple possession of marijuana. We want the city council to understand that even for individuals who are never incarcerated, collateral consequences that flow from their arrest and conviction – such as the loss of jobs, ineligibility for public housing, suspended driver’s licenses, and restrictions on access to federal student loans – can significantly derail their lives.”

Delgado, who represents Ward 2, said she intends to submit a proposal regarding the matter to council members and City Attorney Randy Pope within the next month.

Currently, after a first conviction for simple possession of marijuana, subsequent convictions within a two-year period are punished with a $250 fine and between five and 60 days in jail, in addition to participation in a mandatory drug education program.

A third or subsequent conviction is punished with a fine between $250 and $500, and between five days and six months in jail. Between one and 30 grams kept in a car brings penalties of a fine up to $1,000, and up to 90 days in jail.

Possession of 30-250 grams means a fine of up to $50,000, and between two and eight years in prison. Between 250-500 grams bring a fine of up to $1,000, up to one year in jail, or both. Subsequent convictions may be punished with a fine of up to $3,000, up to three years in jail, or both.

“I’m concerned that this country is the largest jailer in the world,” Delgado said in an earlier story. “We are the No. 1 country in the world, I believe, in the way we operate in terms of the quality of life of people. But, at the same time, we jail more people than anybody else. If in Hattiesburg, we can subtract from those numbers or we can start to help to reduce the number of people that are held in jail – particularly on minor non-violent offenses – then I think we need to do that.”