ATLANTA — A Channel 2 Action News investigation revealed that across the state, African-Americans are arrested on marijuana possession charges significantly more often than whites.
"That is just a bad practice of applying the law unequally, that is, you are singling out a segment of the population," said state Sen. Ed Harbison. "That's just wrong. I don't care how you cover it up, how you try to color it."
Channel 2 looked at the total number of arrests for possession charges and compared the racial breakdowns to census data. For metro Atlanta agencies that made over 100 arrests, Channel 2 isolated nine agencies that had the highest discrepancies between the African-American population and the number of arrests they made.
The agency with the highest number was the Atlanta Police Department. Last year, 93 percent of all marijuana possession arrests in the city of Atlanta were African-Americans, and 7 percent were white. The city's population is 54 percent African-American and 38 percent white.
"This is a difficult issue that is far more complex than numbers can illustrate. I can assure you however, that the Atlanta Police Department is in no way, shape, form or fashion racially profiling," Atlanta police spokesman Carlos Campos told Channel 2.
Reverend C.L. White, president of the Atlanta Chapter of the NAACP, called it atrocious to have an arrest rate so high compared to the population.
"That is profiling at its worst. You don't have to have done anything, if they just suspect you might have done it as you look like someone who might do, than you are apt to be pulled over," said White.
Channel 2 spoke to a man who asked to be identified only as Greg, felt that was exactly what happened to him.
Greg told Channel 2 he felt he was racially profiled in Douglas County, where 66 percent of all those arrested for possession of marijuana are African-American.
"I really felt like he saw me and just felt like, 'Oh, here's a criminal. Let me go get him,'" said Greg.
Greg said he borrowed a friend's car to run an errand when Douglas County deputies pulled him over for a broken taillight when the officer asked to search his car.
"I got out of the car in order to let him search me to see if I had anything on me, which I didn't," said Greg.
The officer wouldn't let him go and called for a police dog. The dog indicated something was in the car and officers found what Greg's lawyer, Andy Cohen, described as a "speck of marijuana" and arrested him.
The charges against Greg were later dropped.
"It doesn't take many, 10 in 100 cops. If they're overzealous they can give the whole department a bad name," said White.
Channel 2 asked Atlanta Police Department why their numbers are so high.
"The public rightfully demands that we patrol high-crime neighborhoods. They also happen to be majority minority neighborhoods and that is where a lot of our encounters happen," said Campos.
"It seems like it's a crime to be poor and living in a high-crime district," said White.
The state of Georgia spends hundreds of millions of dollars enforcing marijuana laws. But with the state facing tight budgetary concerns, some critics argue that it is not worth the cost.
Georgia has some of the toughest marijuana laws in the country and a recent study conducted for the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation showed that the state spends $310 million to police, prosecute and jail marijuana offenders.
One metro lawyer is urging the state to decriminalize possession of marijuana to save the state some of that money.
"You have to pay the police man. You have to pay the jailer, the probation officer, the judge, the district attorney, the assistants, the clerks, the court reporter. All of that is paid for by the state," said David Clark of Georgia's Chapter of the National Organization for the Reformation of Marijuana Laws.
He is one of several metro area attorneys that have drafted a bill to decriminalize marijuana in the state of Georgia, a bill he says could save the state a lot of money.
"Some of the other states that decriminalize marijuana have saved on the many expenses that come with our criminal justice system," said Clark.
Georgia spends over $1 billion annually on our corrections system. Drug and property offenders represent 60 percent of all prison admissions and 3,200 of those are service sentences for drug possession, posing a heavy cost to the state.
"The costs go beyond just the law enforcement costs. You're taking a working person who happens to like to smoke pot when they go home, and you're taking them out of the workforce. They are no longer productive," said Clark.
"Eventually it all comes down to dollars and cents," said Rep. Tommy Benton.
Benton said saving money does not mean it's worth decriminalizing marijuana.
"I don't think we need to relax our standards to say, 'Well, you got caught with a couple of joints, and we're going to let you down.' People know the law. There needs to be some repercussions," said Benton.
The bill Clark wants the legislature to consider would create a civil penalty for marijuana possession in public. Violators would be punished with a fine they could pay online as opposed to going through the criminal courts.
"We can regulate marijuana. The state can make money. Families won't have to be dragged through the criminal justice system when their kid experiments with marijuana," said Clark.
"I would have to say the devil is in the details, and I would have to read the legislation, but right now, I am opposed to that," said Benton.
Channel 2 showed the proposed bill to Harbison.
"I would be reluctant to say yes, simply because there is a strong feeling about it and against marijuana use and any drug use," said Harbison.
But considering the current economic status of the state, Harbison said, "I would be willing to consider it. A large portion of our society is going to jail for basically minor crimes. You know, one marijuana cigarette. I think we should take a look at that."
Gov. Nathan Deal has done just that, releasing a study on the state of Georgia's prison systems. The study called for a new way to handle drug offenders, including investing $10 million in drug courts.
Benton said that is a move he can support.
"The drug courts would actually save the state money. They give the individual a chance to really get his life straightened out," said Benton.
"Drug court is more bureaucracy. The real step, that would help the state and the people the most is decriminalization of marijuana," said Clark.