Understanding Georgia’s Marijuana Laws

As public opinion toward marijuana changes, local governments around the country are forced to rethink their positions on marijuana prosecution. While this has led to positive changes, it has also led to a lot of confusion surrounding the possible consequences of being caught in possession of marijuana in the State of Georgia. This article is intended to help you better understand the state of misdemeanor marijuana laws in Georgia.

First, it’s important to know that if you are within the State of Georgia, you potentially fall under the jurisdiction of four bodies of law: Federal, State, County, and City. You are likely under multiple jurisdictions at any given time. Each jurisdiction you fall under can prosecute you for violating its law. With respect to marijuana possession, the jurisdiction prosecuting you will have a significant impact on possible punishment you face.

Federal Jurisdiction

Federal jurisdiction trumps all others. While federal criminal jurisdiction applies everywhere in Georgia, it is unlikely you will be prosecuted under federal law --- unless you are on federal land or property. The most likely situation for this to apply to you is if you are caught in possession of marijuana in one of the recreation areas maintained by the National Park Service. This would include areas around the Chattahoochee River.

Punishment. Under federal law, it is a crime to possess any amount of marijuana. Possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is punishable as follows: First offense: a misdemeanor involving up to a year of incarceration and a $1,000 fine; Second offense: a misdemeanor involving a mandatory minimum of 15 days (and up to two years) of incarceration and a $2,500 fine; and Third offense or more: a misdemeanor or felony involving a mandatory minimum of 90 days (and up to three years) of incarceration and a $5,000 fine.

State Jurisdiction

State jurisdiction applies everywhere in Georgia except on federal land and property. No matter the county or city you are located within, you can potentially be prosecuted under Georgia State law.

Punishment. Under Georgia law, possession of less than one ounce of marijuana is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and/or up to $1,000 in fines. Unlike under federal law, the minimum punishment for misdemeanor possession of marijuana does not increase with repeat offenses.

County Jurisdiction

All of Georgia’s 159 counties have enacted their own set of laws in addition to the State's statutes, called ordinances. The vast majority of ordinance laws deal with issues such as leash laws and proper maintenance of property. However, possession of marijuana is illegal under most county jurisdictions.

Punishment. Punishment will vary from county to county. But, possession of less than one ounce of marijuana in most counties is punishable by up to $1,000 in fines and imprisonment in the county jail for a term not exceeding 60 days, or by any combination thereof.

City Jurisdiction

Similar to counties, every city within the State has enacted its own set of ordinances. Again, most of these laws deal with property maintenance and business licensing. However, as we have recently seen in the news, some cities, such as Atlanta, have made changes to their marijuana laws.

Punishment. Again, punishment varies from city to city, but punishment is typically up to $1,000 in fines and imprisonment in the city/county jail for a term not exceeding 60 days, or by any combination thereof. Atlanta recently changed its punishment for less than one ounce of marijuana to a $75 fine and no jail time.

HERE'S THE PROBLEM. The arresting officer has discretion over which jurisdiction’s law to charge you under. There’s no guarantee you’ll be charged under Atlanta’s ordinance even if stopped by an Atlanta Police Officer.

Here are some scenarios which all could happen:

  1. Within Fulton County; within Atlanta City limits. You are speeding down I-85 and stopped by an Atlanta Police Officer. Through a turn of events, he discovers you are in possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. The officer confiscates the marijuana, writes you a ticket for violating Atlanta’s ordinance, and you are on your way. Facing a $75 fine.
  2. Within Fulton County; within Atlanta City limits. You are speeding down I-85 and stopped by a Georgia State Patrol Officer. Through a turn of events, he discovers you are in possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. The officer places you in hand cuffs, impounds your car, you spend the night in Fulton County Jail and are facing up to $1,000 in fines and up to 364 more days in jail.
  3. Within Fulton County; within Atlanta City limits; within the Chattahoochee Recreational Area. You throw your food wrapper on the ground. A Park Ranger sees and stops you. Through a turn of events, he discovers you are in possession of less than one ounce of marijuana. Now, depending on your priors, you face the penalties listed above under federal jurisdiction.

“Medical Marijuana”

The term “medical marijuana” is a bit of a misnomer in Georgia. Leaf marijuana and edibles are still 100% illegal in Georgia --- for everyone. Georgia’s "medical marijuana" law allows certain qualified persons to legally possess up to 20 fluid ounces of “low THC oil,” which is derived from the marijuana plant. It authorizes the Georgia Department of Public Health to issue a “Low THC Oil Registry Card” to qualified persons, which will prove that they are authorized to have the oil and protect them from arrest.

Collateral Consequences

There are also other consequences you must take into consideration in addition to those listed above.

Federal Student Aid. A drug conviction may affect a person’s eligibility for federal student aid. One’s eligibility might be suspended if the offense occurred while the person was receiving federal student aid (grants, loans or work-study). When you complete the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) you will be asked: Have you had a drug conviction for an offense that occurred while you were receiving federal student aid? If the answer is "yes," the student needs to fill out a worksheet to determine whether the conviction affects eligibility for federal student aid.

Firearms. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that if you have a medical marijuana card you can be prevented from buying a gun. The court held this ban on gun ownership did not violate the Second Amendment since federal law prohibits gun purchases by an "unlawful user and/or an addict of any controlled substance." In 2011, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms clarified in a letter that the law applies to marijuana users regardless of their home state’s laws.

Employment. You can be fired from your job for your off-the-clock use of marijuana.  Labor laws are not only determined by your home state. The Fair Labor Standards Act, and other federal laws and agency regulations also set workplace rules. For example, the federal government sets a national minimum wage, maintains child labor laws, and rule prohibiting forms of discrimination. Employers must maintain an environment that is consistent with both these state and federal rules.

These conflicting laws also create problems in some professions. Doctors cannot legally prescribe marijuana since it is a Schedule I drug under the CSA. A few doctors have lost their license or been reprimanded by state medical boards, but stricter enforcement is still possible. Lawyers also risk their licenses when advising clients involved in the marijuana industry, since they are providing advice on how to violate federal law.

Housing. Renters can face eviction even when their marijuana uses is compliant with their state’s law if their lease prohibits illicit drugs. Since federal law states marijuana is a controlled substance, it can be prohibited by your landlord. If you are a section 8 or other federal housing aid recipient, you are not allowed to use marijuana. Violations can lead to a loss of benefits or eviction.

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