Hall County Solicitor General Stephanie Woodard said she expects no changes in how local law enforcement handles misdemeanor drug cases and how her office will prosecute them following the enactment of the Georgia Hemp Farming Act.
“There is not an issue as far as testing procedure pre-date of the hemp statute. We are still going to be continuing to prosecute cases … My understanding from my law enforcement agencies is they will still be investigating and making the same decisions they were making before,” Woodard said.
The hemp act became law on May 10, which was intended to “allow farmers and businesses to begin to cultivate, handle, and process hemp and sell hemp products for commercial purposes,” according to the act’s text.
Other metro Atlanta district attorneys and solicitors have decided to pause prosecution on these lower-level marijuana cases.
Gwinnett, for example, will no longer prosecute any misdemeanor marijuana cases with an arrest date on or after May 10, according to a memorandum dated Aug. 7. The county police "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,” according to the Gwinnett County Police Department.
“The reason misdemeanor is an issue is the (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) does not test misdemeanor cases for local law enforcement … There are hundreds of thousands, so they made an administrative decision," Woodard said. "And as our forensic body, they establish the testing procedures for everything. They would only test and verify felony levels for sheer numbers."
Hemp has 0.3% or less of THC, the main psychoactive element, whereas marijuana has 5% or higher.
“No one’s going to be toting around hemp in a plastic bag in their pocket. Nobody is going to have a pipe full of hemp. … From our end, it’s business as usual except for this delay due to testing updates,” Hall County Multi-Agency Narcotics Squad Lt. Don Scalia said.
The current testing only looks for the presence of THC but not the potency.
“It doesn’t mean I’m any more zealous. We look at marijuana as all substance cases on a case-by-case basis. Is it a young offender? Have they ever been in trouble? Was it senior cut day and they were drinking beer? It’s the same kind of situation. We evaluate the facts and circumstances and the criminal history and make decisions,” Woodard said.
If anything changes, it will be the solicitor going through more evidentiary steps when presenting evidence about the drug in court, though few cases are tried.
That may involve a drug recognition expert or a lab tech proving why it is marijuana and not hemp.
Woodard said she has 220 open marijuana cases in her office, and she had 232 cases in 2018.
“I get asked a lot. I talk to a lot of youthful offenders who want to pontificate with me about legalization, and I explain I’m responsible for upholding the law. They don’t ask me if I agree with it. They swear me in to uphold it, so until the Georgia legislature says they are legalizing it recreationally or whatever name folks want to put on it — but basically legalizing misdemeanor marijuana — then I’m responsible for prosecuting,” Woodard said.
Woodard and other members of law enforcement warn against items that may be labeled as hemp but are not.
“If it smells like marijuana and it’s psychoactive, then it’s not hemp. … It doesn’t have the THC, the psychoactive. You would have to smoke more hemp than the human body can consume in 24 hours to get anything approaching a buzz,” Woodard said.
Woodard said she hopes in as little as two months the GBI will identify and start the approval process for a new test.