A joint discussion with local law enforcement points to a movement toward decriminalizing possession of less than an ounce of marijuana.
Possession of less than an ounce remains a misdemeanor charge in the state, punishable by up to a year in jail. However, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation is making it harder for deputies to field test for THC. In the past, they offered a Marijuana Examiners Course.
Clayton Green was certified while employed by the Jenkins County Sheriff’s Office before assuming the role of Midville’s Police Chief. He said the class instructed law enforcement officers on how to identify and certify the presence of THC.
“Well, with changes to Georgia law regarding medical marijuana and the 0.3% of hemp, the GBI has discontinued that program,” Green said. “Once your certificate expires, you are done. You can’t get it reinstated.”
The GBI has also put law enforcement agencies on notice that they will no longer accept anything under an ounce for testing.
“They are not going to waste their time with it,” Green said. “I don’t blame them.”
Green believes that people holding less than an ounce of pot should not be thrown in jail. He is more likely to give a warning to someone caught with part of a joint. Midville is tossing around the idea of creating an ordinance that would require those busted for possession of less than an ounce to pay a fine to the city’s municipal court. The ordinance would eliminate the need for fingerprinting and posting bond and would not affect the smoker’s criminal record.
“It’s not worth it, to prosecute for under an ounce,” Green said. “Obviously, over an ounce is a different story, that’s a felony still.”
With Sheriff Alfonzo Williams’ urging, Burke County adopted a similar marijuana ordinance in 2017, allowing the BCSO to issue a citation for less than an ounce. Williams said it was beneficial for students and certain adults and was a proactive step toward decriminalization; however the department is not willing to overlook it altogether.
Sardis Police Chief Scotti Sanford says his department will issue a citation the first time, however, the second time offenders will find themselves in a courtroom. Sardis has had a marijuana ordinance in place since before Sanford took over as police chief in 2011.
Complicating the issue further, is the legality of hemp flower in Georgia. The state legalized all parts of hemp with less than 0.3% THC, including hemp flower that can be smoked. To the untrained eye, hemp flower looks and smells like marijuana. Additionally, because it contains low levels of THC, legal hemp products test positive for it during field tests. However, without the certifications and without the GBI’s willingness to test for THC when there isn’t enough to warrant felony charges, there will eventually be no one to attest that what people are caught with is illegal marijuana.
Williams said he expects that the GBI will soon provide law enforcement agencies with parameters of how to mitigate those cases.
“When there is a challenge, that is going to be an issue,” Williams said. “Some lawyers will not allow their clients to plead guilty without having a test to ensure that’s what it is. That is something that we are going to have to look at. It’s obviously going to be an issue down the road.”
Legalizing hemp products, while the GBI discontinues examiner certification and refusing to test less than ounce, has created a grey area that law enforcement agencies can’t fix themselves.
“To be honest, cops don’t like grey areas, they like black and white, let’s make it clear cut,” Sanford said. “It’s great for everybody to have a solid line that says, ‘this is legal and this illegal, so there are no questions.”
Marijuana use for recreational purposes is still illegal in the Peach State, but as with any law, deputies can use discretion when making a decision to issue a warning or to make an arrest.
“Everybody says it’s for medical reasons,” Green said laughing. He believes that if what the person possesses is far beneath an ounce, it’s not even worth it for deputies to figure out which of the two substances they possess, illegal marijuana or legal hemp.
Weed has become the tobacco of the 1980s. As he drove a school bus this year, Williams noticed primary and elementary kids getting on the school bus every morning smelling like pot because their parents smoke it. Sanford recommends those who smoke even the legal hemp products to leave them at home. When officers detect an odor that smells like marijuana, it gives them probable cause to search the driver’s vehicle. It can cost a defendant thousands of dollars to prove they possessed legal hemp product in a court of law.
“Anything that we see that looks like marijuana that is not clearly labeled, clearly packaged, vacuumed sealed from a reputable source, we treat it as marijuana,” he said. “Leave it at home; don’t even take the chance of having it in your vehicle. It looks like pot; it smells like pot, the only way you can tell the difference is under a microscope.”
Although legislators may be heading toward decriminalization, Williams sees it as dangerous for children whose minds are developing and who lack the ability to prioritize and set personal boundaries.
Law Enforcement Agencies, the military and employers are currently struggling with hiring young people because they can’t stop smoking pot and therefore can’t pass required drug tests, he said. In other states where more significant steps to legalize marijuana have taken place, educational institutions are struggling with elementary students selling pot at school.
Sanford shares similar sentiments. He believes if legislators do legalize marijuana, they will need to put restrictions in place that resemble age limits for cigarettes and alcohol.
“I don’t think we can leave it to young children to do that because I do think it is a gateway drug,”
Williams said. “We are already seeing the effects of it so I think we are going down a slippery slope just one step at a time by going toward a non-prosecutorial position on marijuana. The law doesn’t say you can have a little bit, it says you can’t have any. So, we are the last step to holding people accountable.”
The Waynesboro Police Department did not respond to a request for an interview.