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.
In an Aug. 9 memo to county judges, District Attorney Danny Porter, Sheriff Butch Conway, Gwinnett County Police Department Chief A.A. “Butch” Ayers, all municipal police chiefs and Gwinnett commissioners, Whiteside said his decision not to prosecute — the solicitor’s office only prosecutes misdemeanor cases, so felony marijuana cases may still be prosecuted by Porter’s office — stemmed from the Georgia Hemp Farming Act, which went into effect May 10.
The law legalizes hemp that has a concentration of 0.3% THC or less, while anything above that concentration is still prohibited from recreational use.
The issue for police, however, arises from the current methods of testing and the inability to differ between legal hemp and illegal marijuana, Gwinnett County Police Department Sgt. Jake Smith said.
“They are identical by smell and sight, even under a microscope,” Smith said. “The testing methods currently used by the GCPD and (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) crime labs only test for the presence of THC and not for the concentration of THC. There is currently not a court-acceptable test that can differentiate between hemp and marijuana. The GBI is researching methods and technologies to address this issue.”
Typical marijuana has a THC concentration of around 10% to 15%, Smith said, while high grade marijuana may have a THC concentration of 25% to 35%.
“Effective immediately, the Gwinnett County Police Department will not make custodial arrests or issue citations for crimes related to misdemeanor amounts of marijuana,” Smith said. “GCPD will still pursue crimes related to felony amounts of marijuana; those cases will be reviewed by the Gwinnett County District Attorney’s Office on a case-by-case basis.”
The Gwinnett County Police Department is not the only local agency to suspend arrests and citations indefinitely; Lilburn Police Chief Bruce Hedley told the Daily Post his department will “only pursue felony amounts at this time.”
Norcross Police Department Chief Bill Grogan took that one step further, telling officers in an email, “until further notice, do not charge anyone with possession of marijuana.”
“The DA’s office has said they will prosecute felony amounts the same as always, but I believe we are better off not doing that until we can send the suspected felony amount to the GBI for testing, receive return results and charge the person at a later date,” the email, sent Friday, said. “Confiscate (marijuana), get positive ID on who it belongs to, do a report, put it into property/evidence, but no charges, misdemeanor or felony, will be made at this time.”
Grogan said Monday that command staff will be amending the email to say that Norcross police will not, in fact, be seizing any misdemeanor amounts of marijuana until further notice. Felony amounts will still be seized.
The email also warned officers not to use the smell of marijuana as their sole probable cause to search a vehicle or person.
“Again, hemp smells the same, so consent or other means will be necessary,” Grogan said.
Snellville Police Chief Roy Whitehead said his department will “follow the directions received from the Solicitor and the District Attorney’s Office. We will prosecute felony cases and other legally justified violations.”
Suwanee police will also not charge for misdemeanor possession, nor will the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office.
The Duluth Police Department said Tuesday it has adopted the Gwinnett County Police Department’s policy, while the Lawrenceville Police Department said if an officer finds “a small amount of marijuana or hemp, the officer will not pursue charges for misdemeanor amounts in possession.”
“If a large quantity of what would appear to be marijuana and would normally be charged as a felony is present, officers will continue to affect an arrest and obtain felony warrants for the defendant,” department spokesman Lt. Jake Parker said. “Until a new legislative remedy is decided and or test kits are obtained, this will be how we proceed with marijuana and hemp encounters.”