Georgia has seen an economic boon in recent years, as companies flock to the metro area and local populations continue to soar. Despite these changes, one thing remains the same: the ongoing battle over marijuana in Georgia and its legality (or illegality). There’s a lot of confusion and misinformation about marijuana legalization and decriminalization. Though related, these concepts are not the same, and understanding this distinction in the law can help you avoid arrest and a lengthy court process.


Decoding the Mystery: Basic Terminology. The first step in decoding and understanding marijuana laws is the basic terminology.  “Legalization” of marijuana simply means that you cannot be arrested or cited for using the drug so long as you abide by state laws regarding age, place, and amount for consumption. However, youcan still be arrested for selling or trafficking marijuana if you do not abode by state laws on licensure and taxation.

Unlike legalization, “decriminalization” means that a state has repealed or amended its laws to make certain acts criminal, though no longer subject to prosecution. This means that individuals caught with small amounts of marijuana for personal use will not be prosecuted or receive a criminal charge or jail sentence. Selling or possessing larger quantities of marijuana still carries significant potential penalties, even in states that have decriminalized the drug.


Conflicting Laws: State v. Federal. The next step in understanding marijuana laws is the distinction between state and federal laws—which are often in conflict with one another. Simply put: when federal law and state law conflict, the federal law trumps. Under federal law, marijuana sale and usage is not permitted since it is illegal under the Controlled Substance Act.

State laws legalizing recreational marijuana conflict with federal law. So, federal law should trump the state laws—right? Wrong. States with recreational legalization laws utilize a creative loophole: they keep their marijuana retail businesses completely in-state. This means that marijuana must be grown, sold, used, and taxed all within the state and without using any federal land or means of commerce, or deducting business expenses on federal income taxes.


Putting the Pieces Together: Status of Marijuana in Georgia. Georgia has not legalized recreational marijuana use, though it has carved a narrow exception for medical marijuana. House Bill 1 (a.k.a. “Haleigh’s Hope Act”) permits eligible patients to possess cannabis oil with a low percentage of THC. Penalties for marijuana remain strict in Georgia; possession of more than one ounce is a felony, punishable by one to 10 years in prison.


The Atlanta Exception. One critically important caveat here is Atlanta’s recent decriminalization of marijuana. On October 2, 2017, Atlanta’s city council decided unanimously to decriminalize the drug. Under this decision, the penalty for possession one ounce or less is a $75 fine.

However, this change does not mean that it’s legal to possess marijuana. The decriminalization of the drug means only that possession of it no longer leads to jail time. Without full legalization, marijuana remains an illicit substance that you cannot legally buy, grow, or sell. Moreover, outside Atlanta’s city limits, anyone caught possessing marijuana will still be subjected to Georgia’s harsh penalties. As summarized by Atlanta City Councilwoman, Yolana Adrean, “[i]f you get arrested by anybody but a city cop, you’re toast.”


What to do if Arrested with Marijuana. With constantly fluctuating drug laws, both in Georgia and at the federal level, as well as Georgia’s harsh penalty system, you need to seek experienced legal counsel if you have been arrested for a marijuana-related crime. Don’t gamble with your future—start the process today by getting a free case review.

I have defended many misdemeanor and felony marijuana cases as a criminal defense attorney in Atlanta, and throughout the rest of Georgia, including smaller cities and rural areas in the state.  My office is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  You can visit and call me at 404.403.2665 for a free consultation.


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