In interviews this week Statesboro City Council District 5 candidates Don Armel and Derek Duke responded to a question about the council’s recent discussion on decriminalizing possession of less than one ounce of marijuana.
The discussion, opened by District 2 Councilman Sam Lee Jones at the June 5 council session, quickly turned to the option of making misdemeanor possession a still criminal but “cite-and-release” offense when handled by Statesboro police and the Municipal Court. Both District 5 candidates attended the June 5 meeting. They are in a runoff that will conclude Tuesday for the seat vacated in March by former Councilman Travis Chance.
Neither candidate dismissed the idea of decriminalization outright.
“Wow, it’s just such a quagmire that it’s hard to give a good, thoughtful answer to this,” was one of Armel’s comments.
Illegal at both the state and federal level, marijuana needs new attention there for its medical and industrial uses, he said. As for recreational use, Armel said he sees alcohol as worse in its effect on how people behave, with those who are drunk tending more toward violence.
“Locally, I guess at this point I’m favoring the cite-and-release to see how it goes,” Armel said. “Marijuana, with the fact that it’s still a controlled substance, has been used as a way to ruin too many people’s lives. We are filling up jails for the industrial incarceration system. We just don’t need to be doing that, and that incarceration system is costing us as taxpayers money that, again, can be used in other areas.”
Duke expressed appreciation for Jones’ broaching the subject.
“I felt like it took a great deal of bravery for the councilman to offer that out because it’s a very controversial issue,” Duke said. “No one wants to encourage drug use; absolutely no one wants to go there.
“But it is what it is, and giving our officers a little more distinct judgment call to do what the councilman recommended, a fine rather that perhaps set in motion a lifelong label as a criminal element, if you will, I welcome that discussion,” he continued. “It’s a complex issue with a lot of important facets.”
Duke is “right now, probably in favor of,” legal medical marijuana, in the form of cannabis oil, as something that could benefit humankind. But a local move toward decriminalization of misdemeanor possession is something that should be done, if it is done, after careful consultation and community input, he said.
“I think the community has to speak on that,” he said.
Both candidates were also asked about the city government’s perennial discussion and revision of its alcoholic beverages law. Recently, this has focused on proposals for letting people ages 18-20 into places classified as bars, especially for musical performances. Otherwise, bars are off-limits to people under the legal drinking age of 21.
One Alcohol Advisory Board proposal would abandon the city’s method of differentiating a bar from a restaurant, which calls on the police to make a determination based on multiple factors. The proposed alternative is to rely on the state definition of a bar as a place making 75 percent or more of its revenue from serving alcoholic beverages.
Armel observed that “there has always been a prohibition sentiment in Bulloch” and that Statesboro’s oversight of bars and restaurants has varied from “somewhat laissez faire” to “undercover stings and then fines and license forfeitures.”
“It’s just not really created a welcoming business environment many times. …,” Armel said.
“Let’s simplify and clarify the rules that bars and restaurants have to abide by and still make sure that everybody’s safe and following the law and can’t create something that goes against the state regulations,” he said.
From the beginning of his campaign, he has proposed legalizing the sale of package liquor in the city and county.
“I think we need to capture the taxes that we give away to all of the surrounding counties,” Armel said. “We can use that money just as effectively here.”
Similar to Armel’s “simplify and clarify” comment, Duke spoke of a need for “straightforward rules.”
“I believe federal and state laws are what we should follow, and we have a bit of a legal situation now where we’ve been accused of doing that improperly, and I look forward to defending the city,” Duke said.
A lawsuit over against the city over the August 2014 manslaughter death of Michael Gatto, 18, at the hands of Grant James Spencer, then 20, at a nightclub called Rude Rudy’s is still pending.
“But I’m for straightforward rules that are enforceable, that are clear, and that we can defend those rules,” Duke continued. “Compliance with the federal and state law is one way to start.”
Armel, Ph.D., taught graphic communications management at Georgia Southern University for 18 years before retiring in December 2014 as a full professor. Now 63, he has been a Statesboro resident for 21 years.
Duke flew combat missions as an Air Force pilot during the Vietnam War, then went on to a 40-year career as an airline pilot. He also remained in the Air Force Reserve, being called up to other missions before retiring as a lieutenant colonel in the 1990s. He retired as a Delta Air Lines senior captain in 2013. Now 73, has made Statesboro his home for 40 years.
Of the 216 votes cast by District 5 residents in the May 22 first-round special election, Duke received 106 votes, or 49.1 percent, while Armel received 64 votes, or 29.6 percent. Konrad Godfrey got 46 votes and did not advance to the runoff.
For voters in Statesboro District 5, today, Friday, is the final day of early voting in the runoff, from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. in the County Annex, 113 North Main St.
Those who wait until Tuesday can vote between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. at Pittman Park United Methodist Church, 1102 Fair Road. It is the only Election Day city precinct for District 5.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.