Roughly 12% of the US population smokes marijuana. It is legal in 33 states for medicinal or recreational purposes. Yet, possession of marijuana is still a federal and Georgia state offense. But could this change?
Georgia Controlled Substances Act
As it currently stands, possession of marijuana is illegal in Georgia. Under the Georgia Controlled Substances Act, a byproduct of Congress’s 1970 Controlled Substances Act, possession violations of illegal drugs and prescription medications can be punishable by felony or misdemeanor charges.
Violation of the Georgia Controlled Substances Act (VGCSA) for possession of marijuana under one ounce is a misdemeanor offense. This charge can be punishable by up to 12 months in jail and a fine up to $1,000. Possession of additional quantities may be viewed as “intent to distribute”. For this reason, you could be charged with a felony punishable by up to 30 years in jail and a fine up to $1,000,000.
If you have previously been convicted for VGCSA, penalties for future offenses could more severe.
Decriminalization of Marijuana in Atlanta
In 2017, the city of Atlanta passed a city ordinance decriminalizing the possession of marijuana. To be clear, possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is still illegal. However, the offense is now punishable by a $75 fine versus the previously VGCSA misdemeanor penalties. When in doubt, it is always a good idea to seek the advice of an experienced criminal law firm to know and understand your rights.
It is important to note that the $75 fine is only applicable if you were charged in the Atlanta city limits. Surrounding suburbs and other cities in Fulton County operate under state statute. Furthermore, the ordinance only applies if you are apprehended by Atlanta City Police. Fulton County Sheriffs and Georgia State Troopers operating in the city limits do not need to follow the ordinance.
You may be curious about how marijuana is legal in places like California and Colorado while it is still illegal at the federal level. The reason goes back to the original structure of the United States; the federal government allows individual states to govern themselves.
Deputy Attorney Generals David Ogden and James Cole issued memos in 2009 and 2013, respectively, providing states with the basic guidelines for legalizing marijuana. Simply put, if the states followed the guidelines detailed in the memos, federal prosecutors would look the other way.
Individual states must prioritize the following guidelines when legalizing medical and recreational marijuana.
- No distribution of marijuana to minors
- Profits cannot fund criminal enterprises, gangs or cartels, nor can sales be used as a cover for illegal activity
- Keep marijuana in the state where it is legal
- Discourage and prevent driving while under the influence
- Firearms should not be used in the growing or distributing marijuana
- Marijuana cannot be grown on public lands
- Possession or use on federal property is prohibited
The MORE Act
The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, is a bill to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level. Late in 2019, it was passed by the House Judiciary Committee. It still needs to be presented to the full House for a vote. If approved by the House, it will be submitted to the Senate.
The MORE Act will not legalize marijuana but rather decriminalize it. Individual states can then regulate it similar to alcohol. If the MORE Act is approved, the federal government will impose a 5% tax on marijuana products.
It is worth mentioning that the MORE Act also proposes to expunge prior marijuana felony convictions.
Let Us Help
If you have been charged with possession of marijuana or another drug crime, contact us for a free consultation. The experienced criminal defense attorneys at the Law Offices of Matthew C. Hines are here to help you.