My friend Stephen Bradley called me on Friday, September 14th and asked if I was sitting down. I knew it couldn't be good news, but when he told me our mutual friend James Bell had died suddenly, I experienced several moments of simple denial. This just can't be true, I thought. Then the enormity of the news dropped on me like a heavy stone as I realized how large a hole James' death leaves in the politics of Marijuana Law Reform in Georgia.
The James Bell I Knew
I met James in the fall of 2014 in Dublin, Georgia. He was there videoing a Justice for David Hooks rally. David had been killed in his own home during the execution of a fruitless search warrant, based on the word of an addict/thief who had burglarized David's property the night before his death. Soon after, I met James again when I testified against the term "no-knock warrant" being written into black letter Georgia Law before a Senate Committee. We had an opportunity to talk for a while that day, discovering that we had several interests in common. We became friends and allies and called each other often. Over time, James shared the tragic story of his niece, Lori Knowles with me, and I understood his interest in David Hooks and no-knock warrants much better. I think the incident with Lori added fuel to the fire of James' activism and drove him harder over the past 3 years.
As James and I talked (and he could talk), I realized just how central a figure he was in the fight for cannabis law reform in Georgia. He was involved in the movement since at least as far back as the 70s, and his interest covered all things cannabis. From advocating the freedom to make personal, adult choices about smoking it, to supporting the use of medical marijuana, to reintroducing Hemp as a staple crop in Georgia, James was involved in it all. He truly believed that the re-legalization of cannabis could be accomplished here in Georgia. He was a constant presence around the Gold Dome when the Legislature was in session, both testifying on issues and videoing procedures. His easy way, his extensive knowledge, and his passion paved the way for good relationships with lawmakers. He was well-known and respected by many.
James was keenly aware of the societal harm caused by the War on Marijuana. He and I often spoke of Harm Reduction during our conversations, and he felt that an arrest and subsequent criminal record for mere possession of a small amount of marijuana was unjust. No victim, no crime. He believed a grassroots approach to the problem at the Municipal level, combined with lobbying for change at the State level was the key. He testified in advocacy of Harm Reduction ordinances in Clarkston and Atlanta. He tried in Temple but was met by a crowd of rabid Prohibitionists who hijacked the Town Hall meeting. Clarkston passed their ordinance, and the City hasn't fallen into a sinkhole. Atlanta is still considering it and the upcoming Mayoral election has several candidates with "pro-decriminalization" planks in their platforms.
I will miss talking to James. I'll miss his counsel. I'll miss his laugh. I'll miss seeing him around the Capitol. I know in my heart, though that he would want us to carry on. No one can ever fill James' shoes, but others will step up. Others will ensure his legacy and work continue. I'll be among them.
Go rest high upon that mountain,
Son your work on Earth is done
I'll see ya further on!