As cities and states across the United States approve legalization of cannabis for recreational use, can Georgia be far behind? After all, with Atlanta as the cultural and economic hub of the Southeast, you would expect that we might follow in the footsteps of cities like Los Angeles and Chicago in terms of legalizing this popular substance.

It’s important to know that, for most people, it’s still illegal to possess marijuana in the state of Georgia. However, there have been changes in the landscape over the past year that make things interesting from a legal standpoint.

For medicinal purposes only

Currently, it is only legal for a Georgia resident to consume marijuana if they’re one of the nearly 14,000 registered medical marijuana patients in the state’s database who possesses a medical cannabis card. Georgia first legalized possession of medical marijuana (low THC oil) in 2015 for these select patients who suffer from severe illnesses. However, actually getting the THC oil into their hands was another story because the government didn’t provide any means for them to purchase it.

That changed in April 2019 when Governor Brian Kemp signed Georgia’s Hope Act, which made it legal to produce and distribute medical marijuana in the state through a carefully vetted network of growers and suppliers.

The actual roll-out of the legislation was slow after the Hope Act was signed last spring, but as the year went on, small steps were taken: the Georgia Hemp Farming Act was signed in May;  the Georgia Access to Medical Cannabis Commission held its first meeting in December; and a system of identifying producers was created. The new commission will be able to buy and import cannabis oil from out of state while the in-state program unfolds.

From a legal standpoint, qualified users of medical marijuana should know that it’s only legal for them to possess up to 20 fluid ounces of low THC oil purchased through the state commission. It’s still illegal for them to buy ‘street’ marijuana from unauthorized persons.

Decriminalization – to a degree

At the same time, certain jurisdictions have voted to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. It’s important to note that decriminalization is not the same as legalization. It simply means that law enforcement will not be compelled to enforce jail time for those carrying pot in their pockets or car. According to one recent article, Georgia jurisdictions that have voted for decriminalization include the City of Atlanta, Chamblee, Clarkston, Fairburn, Forest Park, South Fulton and unincorporated Fulton County, as well as Savannah, Statesboro, Kingsland and Macon-Bibb County.

Chamblee city council members, for example, unanimously passed an ordinance late last year that eliminated the possibility of jail time and severely reduced the fine for possessing one ounce or less of marijuana. If caught with marijuana by a Chamblee police officer, the offender will be cited and fined $75 in lieu of any criminal penalty. That charge can be paid online, and a court date isn’t required.

In addition to a handful of cities loosening up their stance on criminal penalties, some cities are simply waiting for greater clarification on the medical side of the law before they decide to move forward with arrests and prosecutions.

For example, in August, Cobb County Police Chief Tim Cox issued a letter to his department saying that Cobb County police and court staff would suspend their prosecution of people for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana until the implications of the new state laws become clearer. Cox said that Georgia’s new hemp law made it difficult for police officers to distinguish between the legal material and the Schedule I drug.

“As a result, effective immediately, any misdemeanor amounts of marijuana that an officer encounters will be confiscated and sent to the evidence unit to be destroyed. A criminal charge will not be made until a solution can be found to this dilemma,” Cox’s letter stated.

His colleagues in Athens-Clarke County agree. The University of Georgia’s Department of Horticulture is home to one of Georgia’s largest hemp farms that are benefiting from the new law. While a boon to the area in terms of business and research, the implications for law enforcement are muddled. UGA’s Red and Black reports that because hemp and marijuana are so similar in look and smell, Athens-Clarke County is putting a pause on marijuana charges because law enforcement cannot accurately tell the difference between the substances right now.

So, the takeaway is that marijuana is still illegal in Georgia unless you possess a medical card. However, the degree to which you could be punished for possession will vary depending upon where you are. In some cases, it looks like you’ll only suffer a fine.

A 2nd Chance Bail Bonds always encourages citizens to stay above the law but if you find yourself in an uncertain situation when it comes to marijuana possession, please give us a call. We’re here to help attorneys and their clients get prompt and compassionate help when they need it.