Hattiesburg Council plans vote on marijuana possession ordinance

By HASKEL BURNS,

With a revised version of her proposed ordinance to decriminalize the simple possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana within Hattiesburg city limits, Ward 2 Councilwoman Deborah Delgado will now look forward to a vote on the ordinance at the next meeting of Hattiesburg City Council.

Delgado presented her proposed ordinance during Monday’s council meeting, where City Attorney Randy Pope said he would review the document to prepare it to be placed on the council’s agenda for June 3 and 4.

“In talking to one of my colleagues, I agreed with him that words matter, so you’ll see a little difference in the wording of the proposed ordinance,” Delgado told council members. “I am submitting this to the administration, to the city attorney and to my colleagues for review.

“So please look at it; I have tried to tweak it based upon discussions that we’ve had, and based upon information that has come out during (previous) public hearings. So I’d appreciate your serious consideration, and we’ll look forward to that vote in June.”

Under Delgado’s 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. 

The revised ordinance states that although simple possession of marijuana is already illegal under Mississippi law, there is currently no city ordinance concerning simple possession or the penalty for that infraction. As such, the ordinance specifically limits the fine to no more than $100 – and no term of imprisonment – for simple possession of up to 30 grams.

In addition, the Hattiesburg Police Department may implement a mandatory training curriculum to address the differences between the Hattiesburg ordinance and state law with respect to marijuana possession, arrest, detention and prosecution.

Delgado has worked on the measure for the last several months, holding two public meetings and inviting statewide officials to the city to speak on the matter. Most recently, Zakiya Summers, who serves as Director of Communications and Advocacy at the American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, visited a city council meeting to give council members and the public insight on what Delgado’s proposal would mean.

At that meeting, 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.”

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.

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.”

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