When Georgia legalized hemp farming and sales in May, I was thrilled. Easing the regulations will allow Georgia’s strong agricultural industry to compete with growers around the country. However, the bumpy rollout has dented my enthusiasm.
According to Georgia law, residents can have cannabis products with up to 0.3% THC, the main psychoactive drug in marijuana. However, the Athens-Clarke County Police Department does not have the tools to test for THC levels in the field, meaning it cannot accurately distinguish between hemp and marijuana. Because of this limitation, ACCPD has decided to confiscate anything they suspect is marijuana and test it later.
The police department’s policy will lead to public confusion and hurt those following the law.
This is a classic example of how laws can have unintended consequences. Facing a sudden shift in policy, the police department is trying its best to continue enforcing the law. However, its solution has problems.
ACCPD hopes to prevent a rise in illegal marijuana usage while testing equipment is completed. But I worry this policy will not accomplish that goal. Anyone just looking at headlines would probably think that ACCPD is simply not prosecuting marijuana possession for the time being. This problem could be widespread. In a study conducted by the American Press Institute, only four out of 10 Americans went deeper than the headline to learn about a news story in the past week. Wrongly believing themselves unshackled by the law, people may buy more illegal marijuana despite the police department’s best efforts.
This situation feels especially prone to confusion due to the policy’s complexity. At The Red & Black, for example, we published an article with a headline that says the police are pausing marijuana arrests. The Athens Banner-Herald published a similar headline, saying the police decided to “halt” arrests. Both headlines are correct, but readers who do not read the whole story could misunderstand.
Beyond possibly failing to limit crime and leading to confusion, the police’s policy will hurt law-abiding citizens who have hemp for health reasons. Harvard Medical School reports that, like marijuana, hemp could treat chronic pain, a problem afflicting millions of Americans. There is also strong evidence that there is a large market for hemp in Georgia. There are 9,500 registered medical marijuana patients in the state.
Whenever a state is undergoing a major change in policy, there are risks that lawmakers could overlook problems in implementation. When that happens, government officials must have strategies to transition to the new policy as seamlessly as possible. In this case, however, the ACCPD’s solution only creates more problems. The department should abandon its plan and examine alternative strategies.