Effective Jan. 1, misdemeanor marijuana possession in Statesboro will be punishable by at most a $500 fine or equivalent community service, with no jail time, when prosecuted in the Statesboro Municipal Court.
Under state law, which will still apply in Bulloch County State Court and Superior Court, the penalty for possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana is a fine of up to $1,000 and up to one year in jail.
City Council enacted the new ordinance by a 5-0 vote Tuesday morning, after hearing from speakers on both sides of the issue. Mayor Jonathan McCollar and the council also heard Chief of Police Mike Broadhead express concern that, if the Statesboro Police Department is directed to cite only under the city ordinance, this will excessively restrict officer discretion. His “show and tell,” involving bags of actual marijuana, suggested that there are cases where less than an ounce represents something other than possession for one’s own use.
Raymond Scott, an addiction treatment counselor who serves on the Bulloch Alcohol and Drug Council, signed up for the public comments time and spoke on behalf of the BADC in opposition to the new ordinance.
“From our council, our research and our education, we want to reject both the commercialization and decriminalization of marijuana,” Scott said, “and the reason why is we want to pursue a middle ground here if we can. Research and scientific knowledge tells us that there’s a great harm to marijuana use.”
As adopted Tuesday, Statesboro’s ordinance does not require increased penalties for repeated violations. The BADC gave City Council members a memo calling for stiffer penalties for subsequent offenses and making other recommendations.
The BADC recommended that anyone age 25 and under, even on a first offense, be required to do community service plus receive a drug evaluation. If the BADC’s recommendations were followed, people over 25 would receive a required community service sentence and drug evaluation for second and subsequent offenses.
Age 25 was chosen as a dividing line based on research indicating that the human brain is not fully developed until around that age, the BADC memo stated.
Scott said that the marijuana available today is much more potent than in earlier decades, that its being a “gateway drug” to use of other drugs is well documented, and that negative effects have multiplied in states and cities that have decriminalized it.
“We’re having young people that are dying from opiates, opiate overdoses, heroin overdoses, and we all see that, we all know that, but what we don’t talk about is the gateway drugs that open this up, and marijuana is a big part of that,” Scott said.
But the council also heard from Joshua Littrell, founder and CEO of Veterans for Cannabis. The group advocates legalizing marijuana for medical uses, such as treating post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic pain. But even after Georgia’s Legislature enacted a law allowing medical cannabis, qualifying veterans are prevented from accessing the drug because it remains illegal to possess in Georgia and under federal law, he said.
Or exit drug?
Littrell dismissed some of the things Scott had said as “myths” and “categorically false.” After calling cannabis, or marijuana, “absolutely non-addictive,” Littrell said that coffee is more addictive in terms of physical addition, then allowed that “some mental addictions” come with cannabis but that the same can be said of football.
The myth of marijuana as a gateway drug has been dispelled, he said, noting that in some programs it has been used as “an exit drug, not a gateway drug” for people withdrawing from opioids.
“Nobody’s life should be ruined because they get caught with less than an ounce of cannabis and they go to jail, because you’re talking about losing your job, you’re talking about possibly getting kicked out of school, you’re talking about life-changing, life-altering things,” Littrell said.
Another speaker was Chad Posick, Ph.D., a Georgia Southern University criminal justice professor.
“I’ve poured over this empirical literature,” Posick said. “There is no consistent evidence for increased drug use after taking incarceration off the table. There is no consistent evidence that marijuana is a gateway drug, as we’ve heard.
“So I just want us to be clear and make sure that we use science, fact, empirical evidence and let that guide us,” he said.
Posick also noted that the new ordinance was “not legalization, … not even decriminalization, and … certainly not commercial.”
A preamble to the ordinance states that it is not City Council’s intent to “legalize or otherwise decriminalize.”
Councilman Sam Lee Jones, when he initiated City Council’s discussion of marijuana in June, referred to decriminalization at first. But the discussion even then turned to a “cite and release” approach, and Broadhead expressed support for this as a means to free up officer time for other police work. The previous approach requires booking misdemeanor possession suspects into the county jail.
The goal that Jones and other council members have invoked most often for creating a cite-and-release ordinance is giving young offenders a second chance without creating a record in the state’s court system.
“Maybe we could give them guidance and a little love, and maybe they won’t take this gateway drug and go further,” Jones told Scott. “But I do not believe we should knock them in the head and lock them up. That’s not the answer.”
Court appearances will be mandatory for citations under the marijuana ordinance, “not like a speeding ticket where the accused can pay a fine forfeiture up front and never appear,” City Attorney Cain Smith explained Tuesday.
Councilman Derek Duke said the court appearances would be “about as close to an intersessional beginning as you can have for our young people and offenders, so again, trying to, if you will, give someone a second chance but also a chance for behavior modification.”
Broadhead acknowledged that he supported cite-and-release but said he wants this to be an option for arresting officers rather than a mandate.
“I believe that the police officer on the scene is the one who has the context of how the marijuana was found,” Broadhead told the council. “They find a guy who’s smoking a blunt and he’s on his back porch and he’s not hurting anybody; that needs to be taken within context.”
But likewise, when police find “somebody transporting three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana someplace, the officer is the one who understands the context of that,” Broadhead said.
Having signed out former evidence from an adjudicated case, Broadhead showed the elected officials an ounce of marijuana in a single plastic bag. He also showed them three separate, little 1-gram baggies. One ounce is 28 grams, and each gram usually sells on the street for about $10, he said.
During discussion of the ordinance, Mayor McCollar asked Broadhead for feedback on a “verbal resolution” stating that SPD officers “shall cite exclusively under local ordinance” beginning Jan. 1, “if the officer is satisfied with the defendant’s proof of identity, no other arrestable criminal charges arise from the same incident, the officer reasonably believes the defendant will show up to Municipal Court, and the defendant has no active warrants.”
“Mr. Mayor, again, I think what we’re doing with this is limiting the officer’s discretion,” Broadhead said.
The unanimous approval of the ordinance came on a motion from Jones seconded by Councilman Jeff Yawn. But the verbal resolution was not included in the ordinance and could be considered later, Smith said after the meeting.
Both the ordinance and the resolution were based closely on Savannah’s.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.