By Lyle V. Harris
If there are cannabis dispensaries in heaven, I’m betting James Bell is celebrating in one right about now. He’s certainly earned it.
In case you didn’t know him, Bell was the executive director of a pro-cannabis organization he founded called Georgia CARE, an acronym for the Campaign for Access Reform and Education. The non-profit organization works on numerous fronts to challenge and change Georgia’s outdated and immoral cannabis laws. As reform movements go, the progress on this one is painfully slow, almost imperceptible.
But change is coming.
That’s why it’s a tragic shame that Bell, 58, a tireless champion for cannabis reform who died unexpectedly last month of an apparent heart attack, won’t be here to see it.
A burly guy with a slow but infectious smile, Bell had been in the trenches of the cannabis movement in Georgia for at least 26 years. Bell promoted various rallies and festivals, politely lobbied lawmakers, helped craft legislation and testified in the Georgia General Assembly. He would talk to anyone, anytime about the benefits of cannabis and the pernicious impacts of law enforcement policies that make its purchase, possession and consumption a crime in his home state.
I met Bell about a year ago and he was cagey with me at first, understandably suspicious of a stranger who could have easily been a narc. Over burgers and shakes at a Midtown diner, we got to know and trust each other. I’d been in touch with him several months ago, but we hadn’t spoken since.
I wish I could speak to Bell now; there’s so much for us to talk about.
Bell would surely have been encouraged by the recent vote of the Public Safety Committee of the Atlanta City Council to reduce the fines for possession of up to one ounce of cannabis from $1,000 fine to a $75 ticket – with no threat of jail time. Bell was a patient man. He understood that reforming cannabis laws in Georgia would would be incremental, a progression of falling dominoes beginning with local governments reducing criminal penalties imposed on citizens using it for personal reasons.
Bell would have also been heartened by the fact that at least two candidates mayoral candidates are also staunch supporters of cannabis reform; Councilman Kwanza Hall, who sponsored the city ordinance, and state Sen. Vincent Fort. Both candidates have shown rare political courage by condemning the “War on Drugs” and its disparate impact on generations of African-Americans who have been imprisoned and disenfranchised or using a plant.
Late Monday, the full Council voted unanimously to approve the measure, a major breakthrough that Bell and others fought to accomplish. That two other mayoral candidates also voted in favor of the measure is a another promising sign the political winds are shifting. It’s hard to imagine this vote would have happened without Bell’s heartfelt commitment and sacrifice.
But as the leader of Georgia CARE, Bell always knew the real action on cannabis was at the state capitol where he was a fixture during the legislative session. Bell, a Libertarian from Lithia Springs, found an unlikely soulmate in state Rep. Allen Peake, a Republican lawmaker from Macon.
Peake, who authored and championed Georgia’s first medical cannabis law in 2015, last week sent an open letter on Facebook to Gov. Nathan Deal, his fellow lawmakers and thousands of followers. Peake’s impassioned plea urged the governor to support an in-state cultivation program to enable people with pre-specified medical conditions to legally purchase from local growers cannabis oils that treats their illnesses without making them high.
Over the last two years, Peake has been part of an anonymous network of supporters who have been buying medical cannabis oil for patients and their families who either couldn’t afford it or feared getting arrested if they did. This bizarre “underground” arrangement is necessary because it remains illegal to grow cannabis in Georgia. Carrying it across state lines – even for those who are legally registered patients – can mean a trip to jail because doing so violates federal law.
In his Facebook post, Peake wrote: “…if you are one of the 2,500 Georgians (registered to use medical cannabis oil), it’s time for you to let your voice be heard. You must get involved to tell YOUR state Representative and Senator that the state must take action. We MUST create an instate cultivation model that allows our citizens to access the product HERE (emphasis Peake’s) in Georgia, and we need to do it now.”
It’s very likely an in-state cultivation bill will be introduced in the 2018 legislative session. If it does (and whenever it eventually passes) it should be named in honor of James Bell – a deserving tribute to a relentless and thoughtful advocate who dedicated his life to worthy cause and spent his time and energy helping others.
Max Ruppersburg, CARE’s director of communications, said Bell’s legacy will continue. It must.
“James was a good friend and mentor to me.” Ruppersberg said. “He encouraged, coached and supported so many citizen activists along his journey and he leaves a legacy of hundreds of people who respect him, who will miss him, and who will carry on his life work so that Georgians’ lives are not ruined for the use of cannabis.”