Statesboro City Council didn't talk about alcohol enforcement Tuesday, but for the first time in collective memory, members ventured into a discussion of marijuana.
The four proposed Alcoholic Beverages Ordinance amendments, including the one with options for letting patrons ages 18–20 into bars for musical performances, were tabled until a work session. It is slated for 7:30 a.m. next Tuesday.
"What we've decided to do is to bring stakeholders together in a work session as it relates to alcoholic beverages within our community, and then make a decision once we've spoken to all of the stakeholders and we've got a clear understanding of how it's going to affect our community," said Mayor Jonathan McCollar.
Later in the meeting, Councilman Sam Lee Jones brought up the possibility of decriminalizing possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana in Municipal Court. To be clear, even decriminalization does not mean legalization, and Tuesday's discussion quickly moved toward the less dramatic step of making misdemeanor possession a "cite and release" offense.
"Other Business from City Council" is the catch-all near the end of the agenda.
"I have one item to bring before the mayor and council to consider, the opportunity to decriminalize the marijuana," Jones said.
He mentioned that in an incident over the weekend in which a young man was killed, several others had been arrested, all with charges of possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana. In Georgia, an ounce is the dividing line between misdemeanor and felony possession.
"Now, I'm personally not promoting the use of marijuana, and I'm sure the city feels that way," Jones said.
But in "Bridging the Gap" discussions, community leaders talked about showing support for college students and other young people, as opposed to showing interest only in making money off of them or locking them up, Jones said.
"I think this is one way to show them that we support them being good citizens, not trying to lock them up, but to train them this is not the right thing to do, and if you do it we're not going to knock you in the head and penalize you for life," Jones said.
He asked City Attorney Cain Smith to inform the council on the topic.
"The way it stands now, it appears we're almost getting moving towards a more cite-and-release sort of policy anyway," Smith said. "If council so approves, that seems to be the way the tide is going, that they wouldn't actually be arrested and booked.
"It takes up a ton of officer time to process them at the jail and all those sort of things," he added.
Last August, Statesboro police started using a cite-and-release process for many misdemeanor shoplifting cases, and that has gone well so far, Smith said.
With marijuana possession, actual decriminalization would mean adopting a city ordinance with a civil fine, to be set by the mayor and council, taking the place of the criminal charge in Municipal Court. The cities of Atlanta, Savannah and Clarkston — a city in DeKalb County near Decatur but smaller than Statesboro — now have decriminalization ordinances, Smith said. Fulton County is also considering one.
"Even if it is decriminalized at the local, municipal level, that in no way means that state and federal law wouldn't also apply here," Smith cautioned. "There's nothing we can do about this."
Even in states such as Colorado and California that have legalized recreational marijuana, it remains illegal under federal law, he noted.
But for individuals fined under a city ordinance, not being formally arrested would mean "that booking record would not be following them around for the rest of their life," Smith said.
He added that he would be glad to draft a document if directed by the mayor and council.
"I don't know if we're ready to go as far as decriminalization, but I think cite and release is definitely a step in the right direction," McCollar said.
He asked Chief of Police Mike Broadhead to explain the differences.
"Full decriminalization means that a person charged municipally in the city of Statesboro could not be jailed for that offense, by the officer or by the judge after the fact," Broadhead said.
Currently, when Statesboro police charge someone with misdemeanor marijuana possession, that person is booked into the jail and must post bond to get out, he noted.
"Cite and release, that would basically just give the officers the discretion to issue a ticket at the scene if the person wasn't so intoxicated that they couldn't, you know, promise to appear in court, but the judge, understand, could still put them in jail after the fact if he thought that was appropriate," Broadhead said.
Police officers would also retain discretion to make a formal arrest, especially when people are found with marijuana while committing other offenses, he explained.
Through mid-May the Statesboro Police Department had arrested 78 people so far this year for misdemeanor marijuana possession and taken them to Municipal Court, he said. About half faced other charges.
Thanking Jones for broaching the subject, Councilman Phil Boyum commented that he has been hearing "discussion behind the scenes, private one-on-ones" over the past couple of years.
"I think there's more will to go this direction than you might otherwise think," Boyum said.
He said he is "certainly supportive of going this direction" as a way to increase efficiency and reduce the load on the Police Department.
McCollar said he wants data on the volume of officer work hours devoted to the misdemeanor marijuana arrests currently.
Even if Statesboro fully decriminalized, the Bulloch County Sheriff's Office and other agencies could still arrest people in Statesboro under the state law, Broadhead said in an interview.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.