Local police say they are watching marijuana prosecutions diminish elsewhere in the country but won’t alter their procedures until state laws change.
Last month, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it would not challenge marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington state. Richmond County sheriff’s Sgt. Greg Meagher, of the Narcotics Division, said the effects of those laws can already be felt in Augusta.
“(Trafficking) has always gone on, but now we’ve gotten an influx of it,” he said.
Though possession, production and distribution of marijuana remains illegal in Georgia and South Carolina, law enforcement officers say they can take a practical approach.
Felony charges are prosecuted aggressively in Richmond County, Meagher said, but it’s not uncommon for first-time offenders to simply be given a ticket and pay a fine.
“We still make arrests, but most of them, if the person has a driver’s license and is a local resident, we will just write them a citation to magistrate court and let them go,” he said. “If they don’t have ID or if they have other charges along with the marijuana, then we’ll go ahead and send it to state court and we’ll go ahead and arrest them.”
Meagher said nine times out of 10 there is another offense accompanying the possession charge. Violators are most often stopped on traffic charges, but sometimes they’ll be caught distributing another drug, such as cocaine, while in possession of marijuana.
“We do ... find people that just really aren’t doing anything,” he said. “They’ve just got a joint on them or they’re silly enough to stand on the corner and smoke it instead of sitting in their house and smoking it.”
Misdemeanor charges could lead to up to a year in jail, but Meagher said the maximum penalty is usually reserved for offenders with “a pretty substantial history.”
First-time offenders will most likely receive probation. Felony cases can draw up to 10 years of jail time, but Meagher said such charges are often reserved for repeat offenders.
Aiken County sheriff’s Capt. Eric Abdullah said a similar policy is used in his jurisdiction.
“It all depends on the situation,” he said. “Each case is handled by the individual officer. It depends on the cooperation of the individual, and has nothing to do with weight (of the marijuana).”
Abdullah said he recalls pulling over someone on a traffic violation and noticing a marijuana cigarette rolled up in the passenger seat. After reading the driver his rights, Abdullah said he was given permission to search the vehicle.
After not finding any other illegal substances, and after the driver admitted the cigarette was his, Abdullah said he had enough to make a judgment call.
“So I just wrote him a ticket and said, ‘I’ll see you in court,’” he said.
In Columbia County, those Richmond and Aiken offenses would result in a trip to the detention center, sheriff’s Capt. Steve Morris said.
For years, the county wrote tickets like its metro Augusta counterparts, Morris said, but the practice was challenged in court, causing the sheriff’s office to adopt its current practice of taking all offenders – misdemeanor or felony – to jail to be processed and bonded.
He said the sheriff’s office used to issue uniform traffic citations, which would then send violators through probate court.
“It may change in the future, but as of right now, we do not issue citations,” he said. “In every case they are booked and bonded.”
As for Richmond County, Meagher said it’s ultimately up to the courts to decide how the law is enforced.
“We go to them and ask them, ‘Can’t we just write a ticket and if they have ID, send them to magistrate court or send them to state court and just let them go?’” he said. “For a while, the courts did not want us to do that. They wanted them committed that way there was due process. But now, some of it has to do with overcrowding of the jails.”
But until Georgia passes legislation of its own, Meagher said he doesn’t see the problem going away anytime soon.
“The sellers aren’t going to stop selling it as long as the buyers are going to keep buying,” he said. “It’s a double-edge sword. It’s like going into a drug neighborhood and trying to dry it up. You go after the dealers, but you have to go after the buyers, too.”