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 pros…
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.
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.