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Atlanta may expand drug-free commercial zones after easing marijuana penalties

Ponce City Market, lamp

The area around Ponce City Market, and neighborhoods south of the building, once were frequented by those buying and selling marijuana and controlled substances. Credit: Kelly Jordan

By David Pendered

The Atlanta City Council is considering a proposal to expand the city’s drug-free commercial zones, areas where selling marijuana and controlled substances carry heightened penalties under state law. The existing zones appear to have expired in 2017.

Ponce City Market, lamp

The area around Ponce City Market, and neighborhoods south of the building, once were frequented by those buying and selling marijuana and controlled substances. Credit: Kelly Jordan

The legislation states that Atlanta last re-designated its drug free commercial zones in 2012. The paper does not say when the state Legislature voted to enact the zones.

The relevant state law states that drug-free commercial zones shall expire five years after their enactment by a local government, followed by an affirmative vote by the General Assembly.

The crime of selling marijuana or a controlled substance is a felony under state law and penalties are significant:

  • “Upon a first conviction, imprisonment for not more than 20 years or a fine of not more than $20,000.00, or both; or
  • “Upon a second or subsequent conviction, imprisonment for not less than five years nor more than 40 years or a fine of not more than $40,000.00, or both.”

In addition, the defendant can be barred from being within the boundaries of the drug-free commercial zone where the arrest occurred for up to 24 months.

The exact language that defines the crime reads:

  • “It shall be unlawful for any person to illegally manufacture, distribute, dispense, or possess with intent to distribute a controlled substance or marijuana in, on, or within any real property which has been designated under this Code section as a drug-free commercial zone.”

The council’s Public Safety and Legal Administration Committee is slated to discuss the proposal at its meeting Tuesday. If the committee approves the proposed drug-free commercial zones, the full council could vote on the measure as early as Jan. 7, 2019.

Midtown Mile, Peachtree

A portion of Midtown, including Peachtree Road between 11th and 4th streets, may be redesignated by the Atlanta City Council as a drug-free commercial zone. Credit: David Pendered

The pending legislation calls for all existing drug-free commercial zones to be recreated. The paper says an unspecified number of new zones are to be created. The legislation available on the council’s website references a list of new zones and the count of drug offenses charged in the existing zones. The paper does not provide these two sets of information, but does state that the sale of marijuana and controlled substances is problematic in some commercial areas of the city:

  • “[D]ue to a significantly high incidence of conduct associated with drug trafficking, the City has designated and has continued certain areas of the city as Drug Free Commercial Zones in accordance with state law….”

The paper calls for the measure to be added to the package of legislation the city will ask Atlanta’s legislative delegation to introduce and support in the 2019 session. The session is to begin Jan. 14, 2019.

The move comes after the council voted unanimously on Oct. 2, 2017 to decrease the penalties for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.

The new city code provides a municipal judge the option of sentencing a defendant to a $75 fine and no jail time. That said, the arresting police officer has the discretion to choose between issuing a city citation or one for violating state law, which carries a penalty of a $1,000 fine and six months of jail time.

The drug-free commercial zone legislation was sponsored by Cleta Winslow with two councilmembers co-signed – Joyce Sheperd and Amir Farokhi.


Portions of the Old Fourth Ward may be redesignated as a drug-free commercial zone. The northern boundary of the zone is Ponce de Leon Avenue and included Ponce City Market. Credit: Kelly Jordan


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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