Hidden amid the smoke clouds of last week’s National Weed Day was a decision by the city of Atlanta to put off a vote on marijuana decriminalization. Ordinarily, local legislative procedures wouldn’t warrant much attention, but for a city once at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, the issue has become a proxy for a broader debate about racist policing and the measures needed to change it.
The policy debate started three months ago, when two plainclothes Atlanta policemen smelled marijuana coming from the car of a young Black man named Deaundre Phillips. As documented on surveillance video, the cops proceeded to shoot and kill Deaundre on the spot, etching his name in local headlines and hashtags. Since then, activists have pressured the city’s lawmakers to soften penalties for recreational marijuana, hoping decriminalization would lower unnecessarily violent encounters with police.
Today (April 25) Atlanta’s Public Safety Committee is meeting to discuss the ordinance, setting up another possible City Council vote in the coming weeks. But in a city where more than nine in 10 marijuana arrests are of Black people—among the highest rates in the country—marijuana’s criminality (or lack thereof) may not be enough to fix racist policing.