Hemp is dried after being harvested at the University of Georgia’s Durham Horticulture Farm in Watkinsville, Ga., on Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. With the Hemp Farming Act signed earlier this year the university is researching how to grow hemp in Georgia’s climate and whether it will be viable for farmers. (Photo/Austin Steele for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Photo: Austin Steele
Photo: Austin Steele

Georgia bill advances for police to make arrests for hemp or marijuana

Police across Georgia would be empowered to arrest people for possession of small amounts of green leafy substances, even if they can’t tell whether it’s illegal marijuana or legal hemp, according to a bill that passed a state House committee Tuesday.

The bill would make it a crime to transport hemp plants without paperwork showing it was produced under a farming or processing license. Violators would face up to a year in jail or a $1,000 fine for possession of less than an ounce — the same penalty as misdemeanor marijuana.

The House Agriculture Committee approved the legislation on a voice vote, with two representatives opposing it. The measure, House Bill 847, could soon receive a vote in the full House and then be considered by the state Senate.

The proposal comes after the General Assembly approved hemp farming last year, allowing people to grow and manufacture the plant used to make CBD oil, a popular health product that’s currently imported to Georgia from other states. Hemp contains less than 0.3% THC, the compound that gives marijuana users a high.

Prosecutors and police said they need a way to enforce marijuana offenses after several metro Atlanta cities and counties stopped making arrests for low-level marijuana offenses. Hemp and marijuana look similar, and officers would need a test to determine whether the substance is illegal.

“If you treat any leafy substance as hemp, you’re decriminalizing marijuana in this state,” said Pete Skandalakis, the executive director for the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia. “I don’t think that’s what the Legislature wants.”

Critics said lawmakers shouldn’t make hemp a crime, and they worried that police could interpret the legislation broadly to prosecute possession of CBD oil as well as raw hemp plants.

If police are truly concerned about enforcing misdemeanor marijuana possession, they should spend the money and time needed for lab tests of THC content, said Mazie Lynn Causey, a lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

“What’s happening here is the criminalizing of a legal substance,” Causey said. “What this bill does is it treats hemp as marijuana for the purposes of prosecution.”

The bill’s approval is necessary so hemp farming can begin in Georgia, said its sponsor, state Rep. John Corbett, a Republican from Lake Park. The legislation also brings Georgia into compliance with federal regulations and clarifies that greenhouses can grow and sell hemp.

“It is crunchtime in Georgia,” said Agriculture Chairman Tom McCall, a Republican from Elberton. “We should have had this done several months ago. The greenhouse people are getting antsy. The farmers are getting antsy.”

Opposition to the bill came from state Rep. Scot Turner, a Republican from Holly Springs, who said police could seize the assets of people in possession of hemp, as they do for those suspected of marijuana possession.

“We’re treating it as if it’s a criminal product,” Turner said. “We have the ability to do a test. We’re choosing not to. Why aren’t we just taking the steps necessary to establish the criminal behavior on a product that’s actually illegal?”

And state Rep. Matthew Wilson, a Democrat from Brookhaven, questioned why the state would make it a crime to possess hemp after the federal government has passed laws and regulations stating that it’s not considered a controlled substance like marijuana.

A hemp crop could take off in Georgia as soon as this year if lawmakers approve the bill, hemp businesses told the committee. McCall said the bill could be amended in the Senate.

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