Bill addressing hemp possession, licenses passes Georgia House

A bill passed Thursday clearing up who is allowed to possess hemp following questions created by legislation enacted last year.

The state's 2019 hemp farming law caused an unintended quandary for Georgia prosecutors. Some, including Gwinnett County Solicitor Brian Whiteside, decided to stop prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana cases because the hemp plant and marijuana are virtually identical.

House Bill 847 requires people to have farming or processing licenses in order to possess hemp in Georgia, but does not tie criminal consequences to those found with the substance unlicensed. An earlier version of the bill had criminal penalties identical to those for misdemeanor marijuana possession. Because the penalties were removed from the bill, it would not fully resolve the questions some prosecutors have raised, said Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokeswoman Nelly Miles.

The key difference between hemp and marijuana is the level of THC, the chemical that produces the high associated with marijuana. Law enforcement agencies didn’t have technology to test THC levels and the GBI only accepts felony quantities for THC testing.  Legally grown hemp can have no more than 0.3% THC.

In theory, a defendant charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession could argue they simply had hemp.

Because last year’s bill to allow hemp farming didn’t explicitly address the legality of hemp possession by everyday residents,  Whiteside and Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said it legalized hemp by default. Without the ability to prove what was hemp and what was marijuana, there wasn’t enough evidence to make convictions, the prosecutors argued.

Gwinnett was the first county to halt misdemeanor marijuana prosecution, with counties including Cobb, DeKalb and Richmond following. Police departments in counties including GwinnettCobb and DeKalb stopped making misdemeanor marijuana arrests because they would not be prosecuted. Some officers even gave suspects their marijuana back.

This interpretation was not universally adopted, and solicitors in counties including Hall and Cherokee reaffirmed their commitment to prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana cases.

HB 847, sponsored by Rep. John Corbett, R-Lake Park, also puts Georgia in compliance with federal hemp regulations and explicitly allows colleges to process and research hemp.

The bill passed 157-9 and must be approved by the Senate before reaching the governor’s desk.