LEGALESE — Decriminalization of Marijuana

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There is some talk about certain municipalities decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana.  And it is true to a limited extent – some cities in the state of Georgia have elected to make the simple possession of a ‘personal use’ amount of marijuana, usually less than an ounce, a violation of a city ordinance that is a small fine like $25.00.  Because it is a city ordinance violation, it wouldn’t get reported to any state or federal database and wouldn’t be on the criminal equivalent of your ‘permanent record.’

This has led to a great number of misunderstandings. For example, the City of Atlanta has determined that according to its municipal ordinance, possession or marijuana comes with no more than a $75.00 fine and no possible incarceration or probation.  Many people figure that this has effectively decriminalized marijuana, and it is worth it to them to take the relatively low risk that they will be charged $75.00 and sent on their way if they are caught discretely smoking.

For the most part, this is what happens.  However, it isn’t always what happens.  Possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is still a violation of state and federal law, and it is a matter of prosecutorial discretion as to whether or not an individual is prosecuted under the no-big-deal city ordinance or the much-bigger-deal state law.  If you are charged with possession of less than an ounce of marijuana under state law you can be fined up to $1,000.00 and put on probation or in jail for up to a year.  You would then have a misdemeanor drug conviction on your record, which could affect your ability to get student financial aid and/or join the military.  I guess you could technically be charged under federal law, but, honestly, I don’t know anyone who has been charged with a small amount of marijuana by the feds as they generally have bigger fish to fry.  However, that doesn’t mean they haven’t or couldn’t.  It just means I don’t practice in federal court and I don’t hang around with the sorts of people who get prosecuted for drug offenses there.

What causes ‘prosecutorial discretion’ to lean towards the state law instead of the city ordinance?  I don’t know.  Circumstance, probably.  Were there any other violations happening at the same time?  How good or bad was your attitude when you were stopped by the police?  Also bear in mind that city boundaries can be squirrelly – they aren’t always straight lines, and if you are on the move you might be going in and out of the city boundaries.  One minute you are within the city limits of Atlanta, one minute you aren’t, then you are back again.  That can make all the difference.  It can truly be weird.  In Loganville, where I live, the WalMart sits in both Walton and Gwinnett Counties, so depending on whether you are in sporting goods or the produce section, you are in a completely different county.

The bottom line is this: whatever you think the law should be, the law is what it is, and you should not violate it.  That is the social contract under which we all live.  If you dislike the law, contact your legislator and work to change it.  If your legislator won’t work with you, work to elect legislators who will.  In the meantime, just like your kindergarten teacher said, be good boys and girls and follow the classroom rules.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.  

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