As far as it seems that we may have come in reforming our arcane marijuana laws across America over the last decade, police still arrest about one person per minute for using a plant that has proven to have an almost limitless number of medical uses and has proven to be far safer than most of the “socially acceptable” drugs that nearly everyone consumes, like alcohol, caffeine and even aspirin.
Despite the best efforts of prohibitionists to keep marijuana illegal there are many places around the south that take a more “hands off” approach to marijuana. These are places where citizens and elected officials alike recognize the shortcomings of our outdated drug laws and understand what a truly life-changing experience being arrested for marijuana can be for someone. These are cities and counties that eschew the “policing for profit” scheme and truly consider what is best for their citizens without milking them of as much money as possible by way of fines, probation costs and other “administrative fees”. These localities often cite the desire to reduce the toll on the human that too often occurs as a result of being arrested and prosecuted for possessing marijuana as well as the need to reduce the burden on overworked, underpaid police officers.
Also missing in many of these locations is the disparate policing of whites vs. people of color. According to a 2013 ACLU report titled The War on Marijuana in Black and White, blacks nationwide are 4.1 times more likely to catch a marijuana charge than their white counterparts, despite the fact that both use marijuana at about the same rate.
Marijuana friendly cities and counties in the south
So where in the south can you go to smoke a joint without worrying too much about arranging for bail?
Asheville North Carolina
Often referred to as “Hashville”, Asheville North Carolina is a mecca for the weird and the wonderful. Beyond its thriving art scene and nightlife Asheville has also long been well known for producing some of the dankest bud east of Denver. As prosecuting marijuana in southern states goes, overall North Carolina could be a lot worse. While penalties for growing and selling weed can be steep, possession of less than a half-ounce of bud in NC will most likely net you a 30 day suspended sentence.
In Asheville-proper police are pretty well known for taking a hands-off approach to personal marijuana use unless you are being an asshole or super obvious. Even then you will probably still just walk away with a ticket and promise to appear.
The Happiest Place on Earth got a little happier last October when the Orlando city council approved a measure that would decriminalize marijuana possession for first and second offense tokers/jokers and impose escalating fines of $100 and $200. So far Orlando and Volusia County are about as far north as the thought process of reducing penalties for marijuana possession has traveled so far, despite the fact that Florida voters overwhelmingly approved Amendment 2 last year.
To say Nashville, or Nashvegas as many call it, has a rich history with marijuana would be an understatement. Johnny Cash, the Grand Ole Opry, Hee Haw — it’s no wonder the city passed a marijuana decriminalization law last year, when the city council voted 35-3 to give final approval of legislation that will give Nashville police the option of reducing the penalty for people who are found in possession of 14 grams of marijuana or less to a $50 fine or 10 hours of community service.
Despite an opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General declaring Nashville’s ordinance unenforceable, city leaders have so far stuck their guns in an effort to reduce the harm done by outdated marijuana laws.
Another southern city that takes on a distinctive “west coast-ish” vibe is Austin, the capital city of the Lone Star State. Known, among other things, for its thriving live music scene, an enormous collection of eclectic galleries and large number of institutions of higher learning, Austin is a true melting pot smack-dab in the middle of an ultra conservative state. While marijuana penalties in Texas can be harsh, Austin police prioritize marijuana users toward the bottom of their “people to screw with” list and it’s not uncommon to see public consumption downtown and around the UT campus.
In 2015 the Miami-Dade police department did something out of the ordinary. In an effort to free up overworked police officers to combat “real crime” they proposed a marijuana decriminalization ordinance to the city council. The local law, which passed easily passed with a 10-3 vote in June 2015, made the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a $100 civil fine and no criminal record. In other words, the city of Miami takes marijuana possession about as seriously as loitering and littering.
Along with the recent passage of Amendment 2 and an upcoming referendum aimed at legalizing marijuana for recreational use, Florida (especially south Florida) will continue to build its cred as the weed capital of the south.
The term “melting pot” doesn’t really go far enough to describe Clarkston, a small town on the outskirts of Atlanta that has long been a destination for immigrants and refugees looking for a home where they can build a better life. The Clarkston City Council and Mayor, a unique progressive governing body on a blue island floating in a sea of red, frequently collaborate to come up with ways to improve the lives of their citizens. Last year Clarkston officials passed an ordinance reducing the fine and eliminating the prospect of jail time for simple marijuana possession.
Says Clarkston Police Chief Christine Hudson: “I don’t care if people smoke marijuana as long as they are doing it at home.”
Broward County Florida
Following the Miami-Dade ordinance in 2015 Broward County passed a similar decriminalization ordinance that allows deputies to issue $100 citations for those unlucky enough to be caught with less than an ounce of pot. Although the punishment does progressively get worse for subsequent offenses, it take three strikes for a simple marijuana possession offense to be considered a crime.
A word of caution, though, to tokers headed to south Florida for some sun and sand: The city of Fort Lauderdale has opted out of the decriminalization ordinance that covers unincorporated areas of the county, so make sure you know which side of the city limit sign you are on before lighting up.
West Palm Beach Florida
Similar to the Broward ordinance, the municipal ordinance passed by the city of West Palm Beach in late 2015 gives officers the option to issue a citation in lieu of arrest for possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana. The penalty for a marijuana citation is $100 and does not leave a mark on one’s criminal record, compared to the Florida-wide maximum penalty of $1,000 and up to a year in jail.
New Orleans Louisiana
Ask a cop — any cop — whether they would rather deal with a street full of drunk people or a street full of high people and they will always pick the weed smokers. Binge drinkers are loud, obnoxious and can become violent, and no other city in the south has more experience dealing with obnoxious drunk people than the Big Easy. Maybe that’s why the New Orleans city council voted overwhelmingly last March to reduce the penalties for simple possession of marijuana, to give Mardi Gras-weary officers a chance to focus on the people who cause 95% of the trouble in the city during their well-known festivities.
With the new ordinance officers are given the discretion to issue a citation in lieu of arrest to suspects possessing up to two and a half pounds of marijuana. TWO AND A HALF POUNDS.
Inspired by the Nashville ordinance, city leaders in Memphis last October passed a similar piece of legislation that would give officers the option to deal with marijuana offenders on a cite-and-release basis, which would replace jail time with a fine and community service. It’s a little more than a slap on the wrist, and the “officer discretion” part creates an opportunity for uneven policing based on any number of factors, but it still signals that Memphis has shit to do and is tired of dealing with the headache of arresting pot smokers.
So how are things in your part of the south? Are the police heavy handed on marijuana possession where you live? Or do they have shit to do?