Some Georgia cities relax marijuana penalties

Published: Apr. 20, 2022 at 2:14 PM EDT
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TYBEE ISLAND, Ga. (WTOC) - As federal lawmakers debate whether to decriminalize marijuana, some cities in Georgia have already acted.

Ordinances approved by city leaders in Savannah and Tybee Island allow officers to write a ticket if someone they stop has one ounce of marijuana or less.

A city known for its laid back beach lifestyle; Tybee Island has a more relaxed approach than most cities in Georgia when it comes to a certain controlled substance.

In September of last year, the Tybee City Council passed a new ordinance that allows officers to write a ticket when someone is stopped with an ounce or less of marijuana. The ticket comes with a $150 fine.

Since the new ordinance took effect, the city says zero tickets have been written.

“A lot of our officers are actually seizing marijuana and marking it to be destroyed and declining to charge offenders,” Tybee Island Police Department Lt. Emory Randolph said. “It’s more of weighing the totality of the circumstances whether this is something they truly wish to pursue through the criminal process or not.”

Tybee is one of about nine cities in Georgia with new ordinances on the books to decriminalize marijuana. Most of those cities are in the Atlanta area.

The ordinance change doesn’t mean you can’t arrest or charge you with a misdemeanor marijuana offense. It just means, for those cities, misdemeanor marijuana is not a high-priority crime.

“Police officers are now overworked, they’re under paid. They lack the resources as you well know,” said Pete Skandalakis, the executive director of Prosecuting Attorney’s Council of Georgia. “A small amount of marijuana will not be a priority to them. Not to mention, anything less than a felony amount of marijuana will not be tested by the Georgia Crime Lab.”

The crime lab changes happened in 2019 under a judicial requirement. By then, several cities in the state already had decriminalized, including Savannah.

“The idea was to give people a second change and not have that arrest on their record,” Savannah Police Department Maj. Robert Gavin said.

As Maj. Gavin explained, a misdemeanor arrest can ruin someone’s chance at college or a job. Those are the reasons why he helped lead the department’s push to decriminalize marijuana.

It’s a paradigm shift in policing.

“You’re not just letting someone go and that’s usually where the officer has something inside ‘Well, why are we just letting them break the law and walk away?’ Well, you’re not. Like I said, you’re paying a fine. It does have a bite to it,” Maj. Gavin said.

And the number show the bite has been sizable change from the past.

According to Savannah Police, last year the department wrote about 500 tickets for marijuana possession of an ounce or less. And arrested 178 people for offenses that also included marijuana.

Compare that to before the change, when the department on average arrested between 600 and 700 people each year for marijuana.

While some cities in Georgia have decriminalized, Skandalakis points out -any amount of marijuana remains illegal under state and federal law. “I think the public wants clarity. Law enforcement needs clarity, particularly, when it comes to enforcing laws. Right now, police officers use their discretion to the best of their ability and prosecutors deal with it on a case by case basis,” Skandalakis said.

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