On a hot summer night, a Glynn County police patrol officer caught the whiff of a familiar scent wafting his way from a passing vehicle with its windows down.
As the officer approached after the resulting traffic stop at U.S. Highway 341 and Crispen Boulevard, he “detected a strong odor of marijuana coming from the Mercury Sable,” a police report said.
The four people inside the vehicle quickly fessed up to having pot during initial questioning by the officer. The driver said “this was his first time ever getting in trouble and immediately stated he had marijuana in the vehicle,” the police report said.
Police subsequently found a small baggie containing illegal pot in the center console and another small baggie containing illegal pot in the back seat. It totaled 10 grams, the officer noted.
The four people in the vehicle went free. The driver received a warning. Police destroyed the pot.
“I gave (the driver) a warning for transporting marijuana in his vehicle,” officer P. Garcia wrote in his report on the July 22 incident. “I then submitted the suspected marijuana into evidence for destruction.”
Such benign encounters are not uncommon when local law enforcement catches people with small amounts of marijuana, a substance that is now legal for recreational use in 19 U.S. states. Last week a Brunswick police officer stopped a vehicle on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, discovering a small amount of partially burned marijuana inside the vehicle. The officer notes that the illegal pot was destroyed on the spot. No pot charges for driver.
Rarely is a person arrested locally these days and charged just with misdemeanor possession of marijuana, which amounts to an ounce or less. A regular perusal by The News of the Glynn County Detention Center’s daily booking report shows virtually no one arrested solely for misdemeanor possession of marijuana. Misdemeanor possession of pot charges typically only appear in addition to other more serious charges against a suspect, such as felony trafficking in narcotics or aggravated assault.
But that does not necessarily mean police are being more lenient with marijuana possession, or that the Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney is not willing to prosecute such cases. Felony possession of marijuana and selling of marijuana still routinely warrant charges from local law enforcement.
One reason for the tendency to let misdemeanor marijuana possession slide is a lack of teeth when it comes to making the charge stick, police say.
That is because the Georgia Bureau of Investigation does not accept or test small amounts of pot submitted by local law enforcement agencies, said Brunswick Police Chief Kevin Jones. City police officers are instructed to destroy the pot and release the possessor as long as no other potential charges exist.
“The GBI will no longer test misdemeanor marijuana amounts by police agencies,” Jones told The News on Thursday. “If we run across misdemeanor amounts, we will destroy it. But we won’t make charges.”
The Glynn County Police Department leaves the decision to an officer’s discretion. However, the inability to test misdemeanor amounts of suspected marijuana makes it difficult to pursue, said county police Capt. Michael Robinson.
“Our position on this issue is like that of the Brunswick Police Department, which gives the officer discretion in instances such as this,” Robinson said. “As far as our policy goes, we only refer to the discretion officers have when it comes to Medical THC Oil. But because misdemeanor possession of marijuana is illegal, no policy exists. There are times when misdemeanor possession charges are pursued when associated with other felony charges.”
The GBI has held a longstanding policy of declining to test misdemeanor amounts of marijuana, said agency spokeswoman Nelly Miles. However, the GBI once worked with local law enforcement to certify officers to perform their own tests to confirm whether a substance is in fact illegal marijuana.
That program became obsolete in 2019, when Georgia adopted a law allowing farmers to grow hemp, a plant used make textiles and other products. It is the same cannabis species as marijuana, but it won’t get you high. However, the new law has made testing for illegal marijuana much more difficult and costly for the GBI. Local law enforcement simply have no way of testing on their own under the new law, she said.
“Since that new law in September 2019, it’s much more difficult to tell the difference between legal hemp and illegal marijuana,” Miles told The News.
The GBI lab will still accept felony amounts of marijuana for testing, which is now a much more scientific and detailed process.
“Historically, the crime lab has not accepted or tested marijuana,” Miles said. “As of September 2019, the lab began accepting suspected felony marijuana cases for testing to assist local agencies with differentiating between hemp and marijuana. We have not extended this to misdemeanor amounts due to limited available resources.”
Back in May, Chatham County District Attorney Shalena Cook Jones announced she would no longer prosecute cases of misdemeanor possession of marijuana. Cobb, Dekalb and Gwinnett counties have made similar decisions, as has Athens-Clark County, according to various media sources.
Do not expect Brunswick DA Keith Higgins to follow suit. He said his office will follow the law, which asserts that misdemeanor marijuana possession is still a crime.
“The legislature defines the criminal offenses for the State of Georgia,” Higgins told The News last week. “My duty is to enforce those laws. My office does not have a policy that we will not prosecute misdemeanor possession of marijuana cases.”
Likewise, undersheriff Mario Morales said the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office follows the letter of the law in dealing with misdemeanor possession of marijuana. That goes for folks trying to sneak pot into the jail for which the sheriff is responsible, as well as for those caught with small amounts of pot by sheriff’s office patrol deputies.
“We will continue to enforce all criminal law established by the State of Georgia, whether it is a traffic team member or other deputies within the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office,” Morales said Monday. “If a person comes across the property line with drugs, they too will be arrested. We cannot say how other agencies tell their officers who or what to arrest for. We will stand by the courts of Glynn County after we arrest and attend court for the decision of the Judge.”
Perhaps for emphasis, the sheriff’s office issued a press release the next day. It announced the arrest of a 22-year-old Pennsylvania man for, among other things, misdemeanor possession of marijuana. A deputy found the pot after stopping the man for driving 90 mph on Interstate 95, the release said. Additionally, the man was charged with speeding and possession of an unprescribed bottle of the drug Adderall.
Meanwhile, a county patrol officer “began to smell an odor of marijuana” coming from a vehicle he was following on Lawrence Road on St. Simons Island on a recent summer night. The driver and his passenger hemmed and hawed, but eventually admitted to “’lighting a joint’” the police report said. The officer then found a small amount of weed and a pipe to smoke it in.
Both men went to jail: the driver for having a suspended license, and his passenger for an outstanding arrest warrant. Neither, however, was charged with misdemeanor possession of marijuana.
“I destroyed the marijuana and the bowl on scene,” officer C. Rourke wrote in the police report.