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Catching Smoke on All Sides: Marijuana Declassification in Atlanta

In Atlanta, there have always been Black LGBTQ folks fighting for the rights and dignity of everybody else, even when they haven’t fought for us. This is true of the political and cultural shifts that were necessary in order to end the criminalization and mass incarceration of Black Atlantans as a result of the city’s marijuana law. The Solutions Not Punishment Collaborative (SNaP Co.), a Black transgender and queer-led organization, led the charge for marijuana reform in Atlanta so that folks wouldn’t be profiled and thrown into cages for a few blunts or nuggets of cannabis. 

We didn’t advocate alone; the bold leadership of Black and Latina cisgender women and Black male leaders supported us through it all. We fought together, against a system larger than us, and won. 

Like most political conversations in Georgia, the possession of marijuana was and still is a race issue. More than 90 percent of those arrested in the city of Atlanta for possessing one ounce or less of marijuana in 2016 were Black. The reclassification of the ordinance brought the penalty down to $75 with no jail time — as opposed to a $1000 fine and/or up to a year in the Atlanta City Detention Center.

While the reclassification was something to celebrate at the time of its passing, our city was still grieving and enraged that this battle was on the giant shoulders of DeAundre Phillips, who had been shot by APD Officer Yasin Abdulahad. Abdulahad claimed that he approached DeAundre’s car because he could smell the scent of marijuana, however we later found that his report of the incident was not consistent with the GBI report.

In fact, Abdulahad had a pattern of violating Black people in Atlanta. Following DeAundre’s murder, a 2016 incident resurfaced in which he beat up a patron of Bulldogs, a gay bar in Midtown Atlanta, where he worked as a security guard. Regretfully, last August, Fulton County’s new District Attorney, Fanni Lou Willis, closed DeAundre’s case. 

The Black trans leaders at the forefront of this campaign caught smoke and resistance on all sides, from the city’s Black elected officials, abolitionist organizers, and Atlanta’s white community. Elected officials like Michael Julian Bond and Cleta Winslow accused those of us that were advocating for the reclassification of the marijuana ordinance of co-opting DeAundre’s death – even as his family stated that they stood with us and fully supported the call for reclassification. Even former mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms spoke in opposition to the reclassification ordinance, stating that she didn’t want “blood on her hands” by confusing citizens into thinking that possession was legal. 

Black trans women were out in the streets of Atlanta’s West End neighborhood, and after one week of consistent canvassing, they collected 1600 signatures in support of reclassifying the marijuana ordinance. While these signatures were a physical representation of the support that we had from Atlanta’s citizens, gathering them was no easy feat – mothers pulled their children away from canvassers because they didn’t want them speaking to trans people. 

There were Black men that wouldn’t even sign onto the petition because Black trans women were holding the pens. Abolitionists alike had criticisms that reclassifying the ordinance was not “abolitionist” enough, that we needed to demand more – full repeal, with no concessions. 

Between 2014 and 2015, the Atlanta police department made a total of 1,070 marijuana related arrests. 1,032 of those arrests were for possession of marijuana under one ounce. Today, there are an average of 15 bookings for marijuana possession. While this is such a victory for all cannabis lovers, APD is still making arrests and there is more work to be done, collectively, in order to achieve what states like New York and Illinois have done to decriminalize marijuana altogether. 

As a Black transgender-led organization, DeAundre Phillips and his family — along with Alexia Christian, Caine Rogers, Jamarion Robinson, and Rayshard Brooks — are the heartbeats of our work. They are the heartbeats of this work because we were there and because we, too, are Black. We want justice, we want peace from police surveillance and brutality, and we want reparations for their families. 

This Black History Month, in our own struggles with Black skin and queer politics, we want to live free from violence at the hands of other Black people. We want less people to be arrested and to live in a city where people, like DeAundre, wouldn’t be killed because of the scent of cannabis, nor do we want Black and Latinx trans women to be killed because they are simply existing. We must show up better for one another. 

Black History Month is a unique opportunity for Black folks to tend to the stories we tell of our past with intention; the stories of our present with grace; and the stories we tell of our future with openness and excitement.  With House Bill 888, or the “Critical Race Theory” Bill, at bay, #Blacktruths, #Blackmemories, and #Blackanecdotes are under attack. This bill puts barriers on how we are able to share stories of Black struggle, unity, and resilience — stories like this one.