The board created earlier this year to advise the Gwinnett County Police Department and county commissioners on policy matters is on the cusp of finalizing its recommendation that Gwinnett leaders decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The Gwinnett Police Citizens Advisory Board voted last month to recommend county commissioners to change Gwinnett County Ordinance 66.3, which deals with marijuana possession. It will present the written copy of that resolution, effectively “memorializing” last month’s decision according to board chairman Sean Goldstein, at its June 15 meeting.
The recommended change is to make possession of less than an ounce of marijuana a county ordinance violation, punishable by a fine or community service, rather than a criminal act.
“We had already voted, but we still have to send that recommendation to the commission, so obviously we have to memorialize it,” said Goldstein, who is an attorney. “We have to put it in writing basically. We had never done that before since this is our very first recommendation ... so basically what we did is our vice-chair, Marqus Cole, was tasked with memorializing, writing down what our recommendation to the commission was going to be and we’re going to have a discussion regarding the actual written format of the recommendation to the commissioners ...
“It’s just finalizing the decisions that were already made on May 18.”
If the Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners adopts the recommended change, the punishment for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana would be either a $150 fine or up to 20 hours of community service, according to a copy of the proposed resolution that the Daily Post has obtained.
In essence, it could be seen as being, in a way, like getting a ticket for not wearing a seat belt, Goldstein confirmed. That can have a big impact for people who are caught possessing less than an ounce of marijuana, however.
“That’s where it tries to take this,” Goldstein said. “It’s decriminalizing, lessening the impact that this could have on somebody. With a marijuana charge under this ordinance, it really lessens the severity and impact it could have on their lives.”
The current ordinance states possession of less than an ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor crime with the punishment being up to a year in prison or fine of as much as $1,000 — or possibly both together — or having to do public works service for up to a year. That is essentially the same punishment under a state code section that lists marijuana possession as a criminal offense.
The Gwinnett ordinance change would give police a choice. They could issue the ticket under the county ordinance or they could charge a person with a crime under state law, according to Goldstein.
“(Federal and state marijuana laws) can still apply,” Goldstein said. “It’s up to the officer really to decide — he has discretion to decide — whether to charge under the ordinance, or whether to charge under the state law. The state law does still apply ...
“It doesn’t conflict with them, but it kind of gives the officer an option to charge and to go by the language of the ordinance rather the state law, which is a misdemeanor and does carry greater penalties.”
This also comes at a time when law enforcement is focusing less on possession of small amounts of marijuana because of uncertainty and testing issues related to the state’s hemp farming law that went into effect in Georgia in 2019.
Days after Gwinnett County Solicitor General Brian Whiteside announced his office won’t prosecute marijuana cases, several county and municipal police departments in Gwinnett have said they will no longer make arrests or issue citations for misdemeanor amounts of marijuana.
Under that law, the threshold THC concentration level separating hemp from marijuana is 0.3%, with anything less than that level classified as hemp, and therefore not illegal. Prosecutors and law enforcement officials pulled back from pursuing cases centered around possession of small amounts of marijuana at the time, saying the law made it harder to tell what was considered legal, and what was against the law because of THC testing issues.
Solicitor General Brian Whiteside will not prosecute marijuana cases because of uncertainty over Georgia's hemp law
Whiteside said a memo to the county's judges, as well as District Attorney Danny Porter, Sheriff Butch Conway and Gwinnett commissioners this week to inform them of his decision not to prosecute the cases.
Fast forward to February of 2021 and county commissioners asked the Police Citizens Advisory Board to research the possibility of decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. The proposed resolution states the board solicited input from the county’s law department as it reviewed a proposed change.
Commissioner Kirkland Carden said there had been some interest on the commission before he took office, with Commissioner Ben Ku taking a look at it, but he decided to use the Police Citizens Advisory Board as a way to take a look at the issue and make a recommendation for the Board of Commissioners. Carden favors the proposed change and said it will allow the Gwinnett County Police Department to better allocate manpower.
“It’s 5:55 p.m., so let’s say you get arrested in Duluth, Ga., for a joint and some paraphernalia, so maybe a bong or a grinder or whatever you use,” Carden said. “You get arrested in unincorporated Gwinnett County by one of our Gwinnett County Police officers. By the time it takes that officer to go through your interaction with you, put you in a car, drive down (State Route) 316 to the jail, process you and then get you in holding, that’s more than two hours, especially given this time of day.
“Now, that’s two hours-plus that that officer is removed from the street, when they could be focused on those other issues (such as) property crime, commercial crime, arson, crime with a handgun. These are the issues, these are the crimes that are going up in District 1. These are the crimes that I want to focus on as a commissioner, not ‘Do you have less than an ounce of marijuana?’”
It is illegal to smoke or even possess marijuana for recreational purposes in Georgia, but if Gwinnett Solicitor General Brian Whiteside had his way, that would change during next year's legislative session.
The Gwinnett Police Citizens Advisory Board meeting will take place at 6 p.m. on June 15 in the auditorium at the Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center, which is located at 75 Langley Drive in Lawrenceville. Anyone who cannot attend the meeting in person can watch it live through Gwinnett County government’s Webex system at bit.ly/2SpjDqz.
Bethany Wheeler packed her car last week and took one last look around her house for any craft activities she might have missed before she headed out the door and drove down to Lilburn from South Carolina.
The 26-year-old woman is halfway through earning a master’s degree at Clemson University. However, she has been participating in the Girl Scouts’ Lilburn Day Camp for 20 years — and not even state lines can keep her away.
“I’ll keep coming back as long as Ms. Lyn [Risher] will let me crash in her spare bedroom,” Wheeler said, laughing.
Risher is the director of the camp, now in its 40th year. Normally, it boasts about 500 attendees, including staffers. But because of the lingering impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the camp’s capacity was cut to about half this year. Still, everyone involved contributed in one way or another to make it fun.
Wheeler started out as a Daisy Scout in 2002, which is for rising kindergartners and first-graders. Since then, she’s taken any opportunity or odd job at the camp to help out. In the past, she’s served as a youth volunteer, photographer, T-shirt designer and more.
“I can’t imagine giving it up anytime soon,” Wheeler said. “I guess if I end up moving somewhere really far north or somewhere out on the West Coast, that would be a harder decision to make. But while I’m still a couple of hours away I will always be here.”
Girls from throughout the metro Atlanta area enjoyed activities all week ranging from gem mining in the creek, crafts, woodworking, and science and math in small groups of about 30.
Risher said everyone was excited to see each other again after the camp had to be done virtually last year — even if things were a little different this year.
“We had to decide a lot of things for them because everything had to be prepackaged,” Risher said. “So they made something called armpit fudge. The supplies were in a bag and they could mush it around to make fudge. They could either use a Buddy Burner or like a solar oven with a Pringle can to make hotdogs. Some of them did cheese quesadillas on the Buddy Burners, so it was all a little scaled-down, but they still enjoyed it.”
The girls also completed a service project this year through a partnership with Letters for Rose. The goal of the organization is to reduce loneliness among elders during the COVID-19 pandemic by creating and distributing personalized letters, art and donations for local nursing homes.
“It means a lot that other people want to take a part in this because it’s one thing for one person to agree to write a letter but it’s another thing for an entire troop or group or camp to pitch in and help,” said Lilburn Co-Chapter Head Sarah Kate Walker. “It’s really nice and I am very happy that they participated.”
On Thursday, the second-to-last day of the camp, Wheeler taught some of the junior Girl Scouts about cooking on Buddy Burners. They also made friendship bracelets and played games in the field.
One of the girls in particular stood out to Wheeler. She said the girl was very shy at the beginning of the week but as the camp progressed Wheeler watched as she opened up and became more independent and outspoken.
“I love watching the girls open up like that,” Wheeler said. “It’s really good to see all of these different personality types come together and how everyone molds themselves to have fun with whatever we’re doing. I’m really excited to see the camp grow back to its traditional size.”
A team from the agency that accredits Gwinnett County Public Schools will begin a special review to look into numerous complaints, primarily about the county’s Board of Education, this weekend.
Cognia’s special accreditation review of GCPS begins Sunday and is expected to last through Wednesday. The team that will be conducting the review will interview people who have filed complaints against the district, as well as parents, students, teachers, administrators, Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, members of the Gwinnett County Board of Education and other members of the community during the visit.
District leaders will also present evidence to show how GCPS is complying with Cognia’s accreditation standards.
“A Special Review Team comprised of trained professionals will be appointed to conduct the special review,” Cognia Chief Global Accreditation Officer Annette Bohling said in a letter on April 19. “The review will be conducted in a remote modality. The special review will provide all parties with the opportunity to review information and evidence related to the above listed Accreditation Standards.
“Any findings of the Team will be substantiated through the Cognia Performance Standards for School Systems and the Cognia Accreditation and Certification Policies and Procedures.”
The initial complaints that drew Cognia’s attention were sent in before March 1, and therefore before the board voted 3-2 to terminate Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks’ contract 11 months early, effective July 31.
After the initial letter — which was dated March 1 — was sent to district leaders, however, the accrediting agency received additional complaints about the board.
♦ “Exhibit a lack of understanding regarding their roles and responsibilities as members of the board.”
♦ “Do not demonstrate collegiality with respect to their differences or work cohesively to promote student achievement and the success of the district.”
♦ “Do not adhere to a Code of Ethic.”
♦ “Have allowed discrimination to take place against students of color regarding ... discipline infractions.”
♦ “Make decisions that seem unethical and discriminatory regarding the use of social media.”
♦ “Have not been responsive to a downward trajectory in student achievement within the district.”
A letter sent to district officials in April showed the review team will focus on how well GCPS, and the school board, is complying with six accreditation standards, including:
Standard 1.4:♦ The governing authority establishes and ensures adherence to policies that are designed to support system effectiveness.
♦ Standard 1.5:♦ The governing authority adheres to a code of ethics and functions within defined roles and responsibilities.
♦ Standard 2.1:♦ Learners have equitable opportunities to develop skills and achieve the content and learning priorities established by the system.
♦ Standard 2.7:♦ Instruction is monitored and adjusted to meet individual learners’ needs and the system’s learning expectations.
♦ Standard 2.11:♦ Educators gather, analyze, and use formative and summative data that lead to demonstrable improvement of student learning.
♦ Standard 3.8:♦ The system allocates human, material, and fiscal resources in alignment with the system’s identified needs and priorities to improve student performance and organizational effectiveness.
“The Review Team will provide Improvement Priorities, if necessary, that will require decisive action for correction on the part of the district with follow-up documentation submitted to Cognia within a timeframe as identified by Cognia,” Bohling said in the April 19 letter. “Also, a written report of the Special Review will be provided to Gwinnett County Public Schools.”