by Steve Visser, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

David Clark looks pretty normal.  His smile is soft, his eyes are friendly, his voice is measured and his goatee is trimmed.

He may be a radical but he certainly isn’t wide-eyed.

The Sugar Hill lawyer is the Georgia face of a growing national movement to make marijuana legal.  And if he can’t make it legal, then at least wants it viewed as no worse than breaking the speed limit.

And while many Georgians may view that as the latest example of liberalism run amuck, for Clark and his allies, it is the marijuana laws that are crazy.

I think we would be a lot better off if marijuana was the drug of choice rather than alcohol,” he said.  “There would be a lot less violence, a lot fewer traffic fatalities and people wouldn’t be ruining their lives…  .  Marijuana is a wonderful drug.”

Clark, 49, is the executive director of the state chapter of NORML — The National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws — which was incorporated last month to make state laws more bud friendly.  The organization is officially against minors smoking pot.

He notes that national polls show growing support for legalization and a majority of Americans support making marijuana available for medical treatment.  Last week, California Gov.  Arnold Schwarzenegger urged a study on legalizing pot.

Look, we have a black president and gay marriage is legal in Iowa,” Clark said.  “Anything is possible.”

Clark doesn’t see the legislature legalizing recreational use — “This is Georgia” — but he does hold out hope for medicinal use and for decreasing the penalties, which could lead to wider legalization.

At least 13 states — from Alaska to Vermont — have legalized marijuana for medical use, which is still a violation of federal law, although some people are skeptical if it is being prescribed legitimately.

Jack Killorin, director of a federally funded task force that targets drug trafficking in the Atlanta area, said many of the prescriptions for marijuana — said to be helpful in treating glaucoma and for increasing the appetite of AIDS patients — were suspect.

There seems to be a great deal of chicanery going on — I’ve got a hang nail, you need about eight grams a day,” said Killorin.

Atlanta Police Sgt.  Scott Krehir said officers often turn a blind eye to marijuana use unless it creates a problem in public.  Officers often view it as largely harmless and see more problems with alcohol, he said.

Officers are given discretion,” said Krehir, a police union chapter president.  “It is like if you stopped somebody who was walking to a Braves game with a beer in his hand.  That is illegal but do I put that person in jail?”

But people do go to jail for simple possession, either for a misdemeanor or for a felony, if the amount is more than a ounce.  Clark said the current laws only underscore the unfairness and hypocrisy of a public policy that largely tolerates marijuana use but sends some people to jail while others are let go.

Right now, fines for marijuana possession can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars.  In some jurisdictions, possessing relatively small amounts can lead to jail time, said Bruce Harvey, a defense lawyer who handles many drug cases.

If a person is arrested with more than an ounce, it will mean an felony indictment, the lawyer said.

I think those attitudes are changing,” Harvey said.  “A lot of the jurors I have experienced even in rural counties say they don’t believe small amounts of marijuana should be illegal.”

That may be because so many people have smoked marijuana — or know people who have smoked it.  A 2007 U.S.  Department of Health and Human Services study found that 4.6 million Americans 35 and older said they had used the drug in the past month while 62 million said they used it in their lifetime.

Rick Malone, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorney’s Council of Georgia, said few prosecutors would oppose decriminalization but suspected few legislators would want to take on the issue.

You’re not going to get anyone to repeal the marijuana laws because they don’t want the political heat but if you got them in a back room and asked about their use in their youth, you might be surprised at the result,” Malone said.  “When I was a district attorney in South Georgia, I asked job applicants about their past use of controlled substances.  I soon quit asking that question.  I wasn’t going to find too many people who had gone through high school, college and law school who hadn’t puffed on a marijuana cigarette.”

The most recent state controversy about marijuana came last month at the University of Georgia, when a student chapter of NORML was placed on probation for selling shirts bearing the image of a bulldog smoking a joint while reading a book on human rights.

The university claimed copyright infringement.  The student group is appealing.

So far the state chapter is small — just over 50 people — but Clark claims it growing each week just by word of mouth.  Meanwhile, he said, he will continue to respect Georgia laws and reserve his cannabis indulgence for trips to the Netherlands, where it is legal, or to the Caribbean, where police seldom make arrests.

I started smoking pot as a teenager, when I was 14 years old,” Clark said.  “I don’t smoke marijuana very much today.  I just feel strongly that there shouldn’t be laws against it.”

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