A maze of red tape, courtesy of the state Capitol, has local law enforcement feeling dazed and confused.

Athens-Clarke County Police Department will not be arresting people for suspected marijuana possession until the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the ACCPD implement updated drug testing equipment, according to an Aug. 14 ACCPD press release.

University of Georgia Police Department officers will follow the same policy, UGA Spokesman Greg Trevor said in an email statement.

The decision comes “in light of unanticipated consequences” caused by the Georgia Hemp Farming Act, which legalized hemp production in the state when it was signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp on May 10.

ACCPD, UGAPD, the Solicitor General and the District Attorney are in agreement on how to handle the hemp issue, and the two branches of local law enforcement will be following the same guidelines regarding arrests for marijuana possession, which remains illegal, Trevor said in an email.

In the legal weeds

Hemp and marijuana have extreme physical similarities. However, hemp contains 0.3% or less of THC, which is the main psychoactive compound that gives pot users their high.

According to the release, current drug tests applied by the GBI and ACCPD only confirm the presence of THC in a substance, not the specific amount. The GBI expects to have testing equipment with the ability to test THC potency in early September.

It is unclear what testing equipment will be used by the local police departments and when the equipment will be implemented. Lesley Oliver, experiment station associate director at the University of Kentucky, said that with their hemp pilot program, the hemp is tested in a lab. To the best of her knowledge, there is no portable equipment that can test cannabis for THC levels on the spot.

“That’s not a portable piece of equipment, it would require extraction for sample preparation and analysis in a laboratory,” Oliver said of the equipment UK uses to test THC levels.

In Kentucky, the pilot program has provided GPS coordinates to state police so that when research sites are found, police can check the coordinates for authorization.

The ACC Solicitor General’s Office will dismiss any pending misdemeanor possession of marijuana cases if the testing issue has not been fixed by that case’s first appearance before a judge ACC Solicitor General C.R. Chisholm said. Possession cases comprise about 1% of the Solicitor’s total caseload, so the change will not affect the office’s workload.

“I don’t want to make folks keep coming back while a solution is trying to be reached to address the issue created by this past year’s bill,” Chisholm said.

According to the ACCPD press release, officers will continue to seize the suspected marijuana, place it in evidence and complete incident reports. When new testing equipment is implemented, any seized marijuana will be tested, and “officers can revisit those incidents and issue citations,” ACCPD Public Information Officer Geoff Gilland said in an email statement.

Collaboration for change

Although marijuana possession still remains illegal, ACCPD, UGAPD and local law enforcement agencies — including Athens-Clarke County Municipal Court, the Solicitor General and Athens-Clarke County Superior Court — have collaborated on reducing the punishment for such charges.

ACCPD also implemented a form of “front-end bail reform” in July 2019 regarding marijuana and other crimes which was enabled by the passage of last year’s Senate Bill 407. The law, which was enacted by former Gov. Nathan Deal, allows local criminal justice agencies to issue citations rather than arrest suspects on certain non-violent misdemeanor offenses, including misdemeanor possession of marijuana.

Under this new law, police can write a citation, or ticket, for people suspected of possessing marijuana, so they do not have to go to jail and post bail. However, Gilland said the citation-in-lieu-of arrest policy had its own issues, including the need for new citation books to record ticket citations. ACCPD began implementing the practice last month, he said.

If the policy had been practiced in 2018, more than half of all ACC cases that included misdemeanor marijuana possession as a charge would have been eligible for a citation rather than jail time, according to data ACC Municipal Court Judge Ryan Hope provided in April. The remaining cases included other charges that would have required the defendant to attend court.

On the prosecutor’s side, Chisholm seeks to create a pre-arrest diversion program, which would provide an “intervention” for someone charged with certain misdemeanors, including possession of marijuana. The person would not have an arrest on their record.

A different way to serve

If implemented in Athens, the program would be modeled off the pre-arrest diversion initiative in Atlanta. The Atlanta program seeks to help people by providing behavioral and social assistance by having officers offer the person “consent-based services” at the scene of the offense, according to the program’s website.

Those in charge of the Atlanta program said the vetting process and the debate process were the most important components in creating the initiative in Atlanta, Chisholm said.

“[The Atlanta team] strongly encouraged me to include community members with this committee, so I’m taking that advice from a program that’s already in place and working,” Chisholm said.

If developed here in Athens, the pre-arrest diversion program would operate as a “multi-agency collaboration” and include agencies that address addiction or substance abuse issues, Chisholm said. Chisholm hopes a committee of community members and government officials will meet to review the plans for such a program in the next few weeks.

No date or location has been announced, but the committee is “meant to be public and transparent,” Chisholm said.

Hunter Riggall contributed to this article.

Clarification: A previous version of this article stated the Athens-Clarke County Mayor and Commission effectively eliminated cash bail for low-level offenders, but that only applies to local ordinances and does not effect laws regarding marijuana possession.

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