Cherokee County won’t end prosecution of misdemeanor marijuana cases because of a state law legalizing hemp, the drug’s benign cousin, Solicitor General Todd Hayes said.
“We will be reviewing cases since May 10 on a case-by-case basis,” Hayes said. That is the date Gov. Brian Kemp signed a law legalizing hemp in Georgia.
The General Assembly legalized the growing of hemp, which is used in textiles and manufacturing of ropes. But, unlike marijuana it has very low levels of THC, the chemical that makes users high.
“I don’t think we’re going to see people smoking hemp to get high,” Hayes said. “That would like smoking wicker.”
However, some other counties (Gwinnett, Dekalb and Cobb) have recently changed their policies to stop prosecuting cases involving less than an ounce of marijuana. The reason cited is that current testing methods cannot distinguish between marijuana and now-legal hemp.
Hayes said last week that the testing issue presents an obstacle, but that his office’s duty to uphold the law remains.
In addition to physical evidence, circumstantial evidence often bolsters the marijuana case, such as discovery of the suspected drug with a pipe or cigarette rolling papers.
“Where we believe we can prove that a substance is marijuana based on scientific identification and circumstantial evidence, we will,” Hayes said. “Without question, such cases will be much harder to prove.”
Hayes said his office will soon be working with local law enforcement agencies to provide additional training on how to spot and document circumstantial evidence in suspected marijuana cases.
Under the new circumstances created by the law, those facing marijuana charges may be offered pretrial diversion or other alternative resolutions more often, Hayes said.
“There will be cases in which an outright dismissal is the only appropriate option under the law,” he said.
Marijuana charges are also often just one of several defendants face, Hayes said. “Where other substantial charges are brought by law enforcement in addition to a marijuana possession charge, we will focus on those charges first,” he said, listing driving under the influence and serious traffic offenses as examples.
Under the Georgia Controlled Substances Act, the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to a year in prison or a fine of up to $1,000. Possessing more than an ounce of the illicit drug is a felony with a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Hayes said he understands the different decision made in Gwinnett, Dekalb and Cobb counties, more populous counties where the number of cases is much greater. In Cherokee County, Hayes estimated his office would handle not much more than 200 cases involving marijuana possession in a year.