Athens-Clarke County Decriminalizes Possession of Less Than One Ounce of Marijuana

Last week, Athens-Clarke County became the latest Georgia jurisdiction to decriminalize possession of less than one (1) ounce of marijuana. Keep reading to learn more about what this means for Athens-Clarke County residents.

So is weed legal in Athens now?

The short answer is no, weed is not legal in Athens. There’s a difference between decriminalization and legalization.

So how does decriminalization work? It is still illegal to possess marijuana everywhere in Georgia. However, in jurisdictions that have decriminalized simple possession, many of the criminal penalties are taken off the table. It makes it less likely that you will be arrested and taken to jail for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana in those jurisdictions, and you won’t be sent to jail as a punishment after your conviction. Instead, it will be treated more like a traffic ticket. You’ll get a citation and will likely have to pay a fine.

Proponents of decriminalization frequently describe it as a “harm reduction” measure. Essentially, the argument is that incarcerating people for minor marijuana cases does more harm than good, because resources could be better spent elsewhere. Also, saddling someone with a criminal record for something that is legal in many places creates a stigma and makes it more difficult for the them to be a productive member of society. This burden disproportionately impacts people of color and the poor.

Legalization, on the other hand, means that you cannot be arrested, cited, fined, or punished for possessing weed so long as you comply with age, place, and amount restrictions. Some places in the United States have fully legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal recreational use. However, to date, no jurisdictions in Georgia have fully legalized marijuana possession.

What is the penalty for Possession of Less than One Ounce of Marijuana in Athens-Clarke County?

Since we have established that possession of weed is not legal in Athens-Clarke County, what’s the penalty if you are cited?

The penalty is a $35 fine. There is no jail time.

This makes Athens-Clarke County’s fine the lowest in the state among counties that have passed similar decriminalization measures. Originally, the city commissioners recommended an even lower fine – just $1. However, state-mandated surcharges prevented this from becoming law.

Where else is weed decriminalized in Georgia?

To date, 14 jurisdictions in Georgia (now including Athens-Clarke County) have taken measures to decriminalize simple possession of small amounts of marijuana, or at least to reduce rates of incarceration for people cited for marijuana possession.

See the map below to learn more about jurisdictions that have decriminalized marijuana. Click on the various cities/counties to see what the current fines and penalties are.

There are caveats

Decriminalization means that the police have the option to give you a citation instead of arresting you, but they can still arrest you.  This is because marijuana is still illegal under state law.  Ultimately, the judge may decide to convict you under the local ordinance rather than under state law (and fine you accordingly), but that can be cold comfort for a person who has to deal with the inconvenience and embarrassment of an arrest.

Decriminalization of marijuana will also not prevent an arrest if the police allege that you have committed additional offenses beyond possession of marijuana.  For example, a marijuana DUI will result in arrest.

A piece of advice (or three)

If you live in one of the places where marijuana has been “decriminalized,” it may seem like getting busted is no big deal.  While it’s true that the risks are slightly reduced, you still have rights, and you should assert them.  If the police ask you about something they think you may have in your possession:

  1. You don’t have to say anything that might incriminate you.
  2. You shouldn’t consent to a search of your person or your vehicle.
  3. You shouldn’t consent to allow the police into your home without a warrant.

That’s not to say that you should be belligerent or argue with the police — that can result in additional charges.  Just don’t volunteer information, and make it clear verbally that you do not consent to any searches.

Questions? Arrested for possession? Give me a call today.

It’s tempting to think that, if you happen to live in one of the jurisdictions that has decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, you are in the clear. However, you should be aware that there are still risks involved. Because possession is still illegal on both the state and federal levels, you can still be arrested. Furthermore, a conviction (or even an arrest) can dramatically impact your life and job prospects. If you have been arrested for possession of marijuana or even if you just have questions about the law, give me a call today.

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