Legalization of Marijuana in Georgia: The Changing Laws

medical marijuana

The Hang-on-to-Your Hats and Buckle-Your-Seat-Belts Growth of the Legal Marijuana Industry

Remember the explosive growth of the era when the GDP rocketed to 22%, and how it changed the face of how we communicate in America? Well the legal marijuana industry sky-rocketed 30% to $7.3 billion across the United States and Canada in 2016 according to a study by Arcview Market Research. Once everything is counted after the end of 2017, the legal marijuana market in North America is expected to have leapt another 33% to a jaw-dropping $9.7 billion. North American sales are projected to top $24.5. billion by 2021 and assume a compound annual growth rate of 28%. In other words, legal marijuana is big business and likely to grow bigger.

States Including Georgia Are Passing More Lenient Marijuana Laws

Seven states and the District of Columbia have passed laws that legalize marijuana for recreational use. Marijuana for medical use is legal in 29 states plus Washington DC, Guam and Puerto Rico. Eighteen other states, including Georgia, allow use of cannabis with low THC content for limited medical purposes. In 2015, Georgia passed the Haleigh’s Hope Act, which allowed use of marijuana for limited medical conditions. Patients can possess up to 20 fluid ounces of cannabis oils with low THC, which the Act defines as containing “not more than 5% by weight of tetrahydrocannabinol and an amount of cannabidiol equal to or greater  than the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol.” The law allows the University System of Georgia to develop a clinical research program for THC oil that meets FDA trial compliance. Then in 2017, Georgia passed SB 16, which expanded the list of medical problems for which it is legal to use marijuana. Today in Georgia, it is legal for registered users to use marijuana for conditions that include cancer, ALS, multiple sclerosis, seizure disorders, Crohn’s disease, sickle cell anemia, autism (for minors), Tourette’s syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, epidermolysis bullosa (a skin condition), Alzheimer’s, AIDS and peripheral neuropathy.

Atlanta Decriminalized Marijuana

Atlanta went much further. On October 11, 2017, the mayor of Atlanta signed a measure that decriminalized possession of a small amount of marijuana in that city. Those found with an ounce or less of marijuana now need only pay a $75 fine. The stricter laws of the state of Georgia technically still apply within the city limits of Atlanta, but the city itself has made their enforcement priorities clear.

It is nothing short of amazing that the marijuana industry has grown so dramatically in recent years, particularly in the face of federal uncertainty. Cannabis is still a Schedule 1 drug under the federal Controlled Substances Act, but the federal government has not acted to enforce the prohibition in the face of state legalizations. Probably the best protection against the federal government deciding to actively enforce marijuana laws is public opinion. A Gallup poll reports that 64% of American adults support legalization. Compare that to 12% approval in 1969.  Clearly the attitudes of average Americans toward marijuana have become more favorable than they were during the Summer of Love.

A poll by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the beginning of the year found that 71% of Georgia residents polled supported expanding medical marijuana in Georgia to include an in-state harvesting program. However, over half of voters polled did not approve legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

Overall, Marijuana is Still Illegal in Georgia

Marijuana is still illegal for recreational use in Georgia. Also, marijuana is not legal for all medical conditions, only those specifically spelled out by statute. Under O.C.G.A. § 16-13-30, possession of one ounce or less is a misdemeanor that carries one year or a $1,000 fine. Possession of more than that is a felony, and the prison time and fines increase according to the amount of marijuana you have.

Driving Under the Influence of Marijuana in Georgia

Just like driving under the influence of alcohol, your right to legally possess cannabis is not a defense to driving under its influence. Under O.C.G.A. § 40-6-391, you may not drive a motor vehicle while under the influence of any drug if doing so makes it “less safe” for you to drive. There has been some controversy in Georgia law about exactly what constitutes a marijuana DUI offense. In 1999, the Georgia Supreme Court case of Love v. State, 271 Ga. 398, 517 S.E.2d 53 (1999) declared OCGA 40-6-391(a)(6) unconstitutional. Under that code section, any amount of THC in the blood or urine was a DUI violation. However, if blood tests are performed, they must be performed for the THC metabolite 11-hydroxy-THC, the substance that makes people “high,” as other THC metabolites can remain in the blood long term, even for months. Testing can be difficult, and it may be necessary for the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver used marijuana and it made their driving less safe.

Trends in Georgia Marijuana Legislation

It’s always hard to predict the future, and we have recently seen that political climates can change rapidly. However, given the public’s growing acceptance of marijuana and the increasing leniency of state laws across the country, it is reasonable to expect that the laws may move toward loosening restrictions about using medical marijuana here in Georgia. It is unlikely that the state will approve legalization of the recreational use of marijuana any time soon, despite the recent decriminalization in Atlanta.