Local police departments vary in approach to marijuana arrests
By Joe Parker - July 9, 2018
NORTH FULTON/FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — The consequences of being found in possession of a small amount of marijuana during a traffic stop can depend a lot on where you’re stopped.
A Black Box investigation of arrest reports in North Fulton and Forsyth County reveals a wide range of how local jurisdictions handle possession violations.
In the case of marijuana possession, a suspect can either be arrested and booked into jail, or the officer may use discretion to release a suspect on a copy of charges. Police arrest reports over a year-long period show local law enforcement agencies vary in their approach. While some jurisdictions booked suspects into jail in 91 percent of the cases, others made arrests in as little as 22 percent of the time.
Some Georgia cities, including two in Fulton County, have “decriminalized” possession of small amounts of marijuana, allowing officers to enforce municipal codes rather than state law. These city codes are less severe than the state’s code, and in many jurisdictions only a fine is levied.
Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Milton, Roswell and Forsyth County have no codes allowing for leniency.
Released on a copy of charges vs. booked into jail
When police find a person in possession of one ounce or less of marijuana, many local law enforcement agencies permit their officers to either arrest the suspect and book them into a jail or to release them on a copy of the charge of marijuana possession.
The officer’s decision comes with massive implications to the offender. A booking results in a trip to jail where the suspect must post bail to be released prior to their court date. If a person is released on a copy of charges, they are given a court date, avoid spending that night in jail and are free to go home without posting bail.
However, releasing a person on a copy of charges still constitutes an arrest.
“Whether physical arrest or release on a copy of charges, the case, by Uniform Crime Reporting code, is an arrest,” said Milton Chief of Police Rich Austin. “If a citation is written for an arrestable offense, it is still considered an arrest.”
Milton Police Capt. Charles Barstow said a suspect can be released if they are likely to be “refused” by jail staff for medical issues or if the only charge is marijuana possession and they are “cooperative and forthcoming.”
In Alpharetta, Director of Public Safety John Robison said his officers have the option to book a suspect or release them.
“There is a great deal of discretion involved,” he said.
James Easterwood, Roswell deputy chief of police, said his officers weigh a number of factors in their decision to cite or book a suspect where the only charge is a marijuana possession of one ounce or less. He said it is ultimately a “discretionary act.”
However, the likelihood of a suspect spending the night in jail or at home varies greatly depending on which law enforcement agency is involved.
Open records reveal discrepancy
Records obtained by Black Box show that in the one-year period between Sept. 1, 2016 and Sept. 1, 2017, police agencies of Johns Creek, Milton, Alpharetta, Roswell and Forsyth County had 557 cases in which a suspect was found in possession of less than one ounce of marijuana with no other major charges or offenses.
In many instances, an officer pulled over a car for a moving violation, such as speeding or running a red light.
“A high number of our marijuana arrests are on traffic stops or a suspicious person or vehicle,” Alpharetta’s Robison said. “A lot of times it is related to vehicles and traffic stops. Normally in those situations, [officers] smell the marijuana in the vehicle or they are investigating something else and marijuana comes up.”
That’s also the case in Milton.
“Typically there are other charges or other reasons to stop the individual and the officer develops some type of cause that there may be some other type of criminal activity afoot, such as possession of drugs,” Police Chief Austin said. “That’s where we typically find marijuana, often times just a small amount which appears to be personal-use marijuana.”
While similarities exist in how police departments discover the substance, what comes after varies wildly.
In Johns Creek, 78 percent of suspects found in possession of less than an ounce of marijuana were released on a copy of charges during the year-long span studied. At the other end of the scale is Forsyth County, where 9 percent of suspects were released on a copy of charges.
The agencies of Alpharetta, Roswell and Milton also had varying percentages.
During the year-long span in which Black Box obtained records reports for marijuana arrests, Alpharetta Police saw the most instances of suspects in possession of marijuana with no other major charges. They were also one of the agencies most likely to release a suspect with a court date.
Alpharetta released the suspect in 68 percent of the 174 incidences reported.
The idea that being honest with officers can prove beneficial for suspects rings true in some cases. While Robison said this will not guarantee someone found to be in possession of marijuana will be released on a copy of charges, being honest with law enforcement can be weighed into the officer’s discretion.
“Typically in a scenario where there are no other major charges, especially when the subject we are dealing with is willing to be honest and upfront about it and works with us, most of the time our officers will work with them and they’ll write them a citation and give them a court date,” Robison said. “If they lie about it and the officer finds it anyway, maybe when they are being charged with something else and they find it through another avenue, that could change things.”
While some local agencies may consider resources in their decision to book or release a suspect, these are minor considerations for Alpharetta Police, Robison said.
“If the decision is made we are going to make an arrest (and booking) we are going to do that, because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “We are not going to [not make an arrest] because we don’t have time, it’s busy or the end of a shift. Our officers are going to base that on a greater criteria than ‘We are busy right now.’”
While North Fulton has its own municipal law enforcement agencies, Forsyth County is mainly patrolled by the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, and a suspect’s prospects of being released by the agency on a copy of charges is minimal.
In the more than 100 cases involving small amounts of marijuana, 12 suspects, or 9 percent, were released on a copy of charges between September 2016 and September 2017. Of these instances, many were due to extenuating circumstances, such as the suspect being underage or, in one case, a woman was late in her pregnancy.
The Sheriff’s Office declined to comment for this article, citing their newly formed drug task force with the law enforcement agencies of Johns Creek and Alpharetta.
“We cannot disclose how we conduct our drug investigations or what we are seeing or tactics because we have several ongoing, large-scale cases this could possibly compromise,” said Cpl. Doug Rainwater of the Sheriff’s Office in an email. “We enforce the laws the state of Georgia has passed, and we prioritize drug dealers profiting or selling to kids.”
While suspects found with marijuana in traffic stops seldom avoid jail in Forsyth County, their chances of going home with a court date increase dramatically farther down Ga. 141 to Johns Creek.
Records show neighboring Johns Creek has the lowest percentage of bookings in the study area.
In 39 instances of marijuana possession with no other major charges, 78 percent of suspects were released on a copy of charges.
The Johns Creek Police Department declined to comment for this article, but the city’s police chief, prosecutor and municipal judge spoke at a November 2017 City Council work session discussing a measure introduced by Councilman Chris Coughlin to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in the city.
“By and large, [an] officer is going to release you on a copy of charges and send you on your way,” Chief of Police Ed Densmore said at that meeting.
The Johns Creek police chief likened releasing a suspect on a copy of charges to running a red light.
“You are given a citation and you come to court,” he said. “You are being released on a copy of charges because you agree to come to your court date.”
Larry Delan, the city’s prosecutor, said the city works internally to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
“Between the Police Department and the court system, we treat just about every possession of marijuana case as a disorderly conduct without an arrest,” Delan said. “The majority of the kids that we see come through this court have not been arrested. Even if they are charged with possession of marijuana, I amend those charges to disorderly conduct so they don’t start their lives out with an arrest record.”
Milton Chief of Police Rich Austin began his tenure with the agency last January. One of his first initiatives regarded addressing the enforcement of marijuana possession.
“Shortly after coming to Milton, I did direct my officers that when we did find less than one ounce [of marijuana] and that was the only charge, that they should confer with a supervisor as to whether an arrest is appropriate,” Austin said.
One determining factor is the agency’s limited resources, Austin said.
“The reason why we would release an offender on a copy of charges is the department, like any other agency, we have finite resources and we have to manage those resources intelligently,” he said. “So I have the officers work with the supervisor to make the best decision. I can either have an officer or two tied up for two or three hours on a simple possession of marijuana, or I can direct the officer to routinely write citations and free up those officers to ensure we have enough preventative patrol in our neighborhoods and businesses. Like any other charge [marijuana possession] takes a lot of time, and it takes the officer off the street. It’s a non-violent charge and we want to manage our resources in the best interests of the citizens of Milton.”
Among North Fulton cities, Milton had the highest percentage of suspects booked into jail during the time period of our open records request. Austin’s initiative for officers to contact a supervisor was in place nine months of that year. No suspects were released on charges before his tenure began, but five were released during the next nine months.
Within these five instances, two were released because no car was available for transport, two were juveniles and one suspect required a medical evaluation.
Among all four North Fulton cities and Forsyth County, Milton recorded the lowest number of cases where suspects were charged for small amounts of marijuana with no other major charges. Austin said his department is seeing more suspects charged with more serious crimes who also are possessing the drug.
“The vast majority of marijuana arrests in Milton are accompanied by other, often more serious charges,” he said.
While Roswell allows releasing a suspect on charges, violators still had around a 50/50 chance of being booked into jail from September 2016 to September 2017.
In 168 cases of possession of marijuana with no other major charges during this time, Roswell Police released the suspect on a copy of charges in 92 cases, or 55 percent of the time.
“It’s discretionary, but [the Roswell Police Department’s] practice is to release [the suspect] on a copy of charges,” said Deputy Chief James Easterwood.
In deciding whether a suspect spends a night in jail or is released to go home, Easterwood said Roswell officers weigh a number of factors, including whether the person is a prior offender or whether they have a history of not appearing in court.
While most cities appeared to chart a consistent approach in handling marijuana cases, Roswell records showed a trend toward more leniency later in the time period of the Black Box open records request.
From September to November of 2016, officers cited and released 60 percent of 42 suspects. In another three-month span from June to August 2017, 42 of 46 of offenders – 90 percent – were cited and released.
The evolution of marijuana
By Joe Parker - April 25, 2018
NORTH FULTON/FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — Marijuana – and people’s perception of the plant – has changed since it first found footing in the international market more than 100 years ago.
Global attitudes toward the plant and its psychoactive properties have become even more fluid over the past two decades, particularly in the United States.
Marijuana and its derivatives are now legal for medical uses in all but six states and has been legalized for recreational use in eight states and Washington D.C.
While a growing number of Americans favor liberalized laws governing the use of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes, many lawmakers and law enforcement agencies remain opposed.
In 2015, the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation allowing the possession of low-THC oils by residents suffering from eight ailments. In the 2018 legislative session, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder were added to the list of permitted uses.
While possession of cannabis oils for medical use is permitted for qualified patients, cultivation of marijuana in the state remains illegal.
In North Fulton, marijuana use and trafficking does not appear to be at crisis levels, at least according to local law enforcement officials.
Authorities have devoted more focus recently to harder drugs, opioids in particular.
Law enforcement departments in Johns Creek, Alpharetta and Forsyth County formed a drug task force earlier this year, pooling resources from all three agencies to track and combat the opioid trade that has swelled in the area.
As far as marijuana, police in Alpharetta and Milton say users discovered in their cities are usually found with small amounts, and generally the marijuana is discovered during traffic stops.
Alpharetta Public Safety Director John Robison said felony arrests for marijuana are infrequent.
“In day-to-day operations, we will occasionally make felony arrests where [a suspect] has a large amount or we charge with intent to distribute, but even then, it may not be a trafficker but someone just selling dope on the side,” Robison said.
Local law enforcement agencies enforce marijuana laws that mirror the state’s approach, though recent discussions in one North Fulton city called for drastically reducing the charges for suspects apprehended with less than one ounce of the drug. The measure was similar to an ordinance passed by the Atlanta City Council last year.
Records from police in Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Milton, Roswell and Forsyth County show that from September 2016 to September 2017, nearly 600 people were either arrested or cited for possessing under one ounce of marijuana where there were no other major offenses.
Getting high and how marijuana affects the body
Marijuana has become significantly more potent in the last two decades, and alternative forms, from edibles, oils and topical applications, have gained popularity.
The use of marijuana falls into two distinct categories — recreation and medical use.
Marijuana’s recreational use, consumed or smoked to produce a pleasurable “high,” can be attributed to the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol in the plant. Much of the THC is concentrated in the buds and leaves and is significantly lower in the stems and seeds.
When marijuana is ingested, the THC enters the bloodstream and is distributed to the brain and “overactivates” cell receptors to produce a high. Smoking marijuana allows the THC to enter the bloodstream almost immediately while ingesting it usually results in a delayed effect.
In recent years it has become easier to obtain a more pronounced high with less of the drug due to its rise in potency.
A recent University of Mississippi study found that the levels of THC in marijuana tripled between 1995 and 2014.
Though long-term scientific studies have been conducted on recreational marijuana use and its effects on cognitive abilities, some of the data have been contradictory. A 2012 study conducted in New Zealand concluded that adolescents who use marijuana can lose IQ points that will not be recovered later in life. Conversely, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that marijuana’s impact on cognitive ability diminished for just three days after use.
On the medical side, cannabidiol and low-THC oils have become a popular alternative to prescription drugs in treating certain serious medical ailments or diseases. Medical marijuana can also be used by patients suffering from end-stage cancer and other terminal diseases to help mitigate the pain associated with the disease.
Forms of marijuana and what local law enforcement are seeing
Alternative forms of marijuana, including edibles, oils, topical extracts, electronic cigarette liquids and other forms, are gaining popularity.
A recent study conducted by Arcview Market Research on consumption in states where recreational use is legal found a sharp increase in use of alternative forms of marijuana.
After recreational use was permitted in Colorado in 2012, the study found that the growth of non-leaf forms of the drug have outpaced traditional flower sales.
In 2016, barely over half – 56 percent – of recreational sales came from dried flowers. Edibles more than tripled in sales the same year.
While the popularity of alternative forms of marijuana may be growing in other areas, local law enforcement agencies are still confiscating mainly leaf forms.
“Most of the arrests we make in our uniform operations are still pretty much leaf form,” said Alpharetta’s Robison. “We will see some liquid or butters or things like that every once and a while, but for the most part it’s still pretty standard [forms].”
Milton Police Chief Rich Austin said the same.
“We really have not seen an increase in oils or other forms of marijuana to a great extent,” he said.
However, Robison said that detecting alternative forms of marijuana can be challenging.
“Sometimes when you pull a car over, the window opens and the smell of marijuana reeks,” he said. “But some of the other substances might not be as strong. There is no perfect training or perfect amount of training you can do, but we try to keep our officers up to date on current trends, new trends that are coming and things to look out for.”
Georgia’s marijuana legislation and the push for decriminalization in North Fulton
By Joe Parker - May 9, 2018
NORTH ATLANTA, Ga. — Lawmakers at the state and federal levels have tackled the issues concerning marijuana for over a century.
Those first measures in the early 1900s formally banned the use of marijuana, but in the last few decades, lawmakers have opened up to its use, allowing for medical and recreational use and possession. Such discussions have gained traction in North Fulton where one local elected official has openly supported “decriminalizing” possession of small amounts of the substance.
Georgia’s first medical marijuana act
Despite a generally conservative approach to drug legislation, including denials to permit medical marijuana use or expand it in recent years, Georgia was one of the first states to allow for medical marijuana use nearly 40 years ago.
In 1980, the Georgia Legislature overwhelmingly passed the Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research Act. The measure was drafted by Georgia resident Mona Taft whose husband had suffered the ravages of cancer and chemotherapy. Just days before his death, he smoked marijuana for the first time and, according to a Feb. 14, 1980 article in The Evening Independent, had “his first full night’s sleep in six months.”
Taft’s bill allowed for medical marijuana clinical trials for those suffering from cancer or glaucoma. The trials were conducted through the Controlled Substances Therapeutic Research program. Despite the bill’s passage, the program was essentially inactive for decades.
Haleigh’s Hope: Georgia passes bill to allow for medical marijuana use
In 2015, Georgia joined a growing number of states to permit limited medical marijuana possession and use. Similar to a current effort in North Fulton regarding marijuana legislation, the bill faced heavy criticism by lawmakers and law enforcement officials.
The bill was drafted by State House Rep. Allen Peake, a self-proclaimed conservative Republican from Macon, who said he has never consumed marijuana.
In 2014, Peake was approached by the family of then 5-year old Haleigh Cox. Haleigh suffered from more than 100 seizures a day, and her family was considering moving to Colorado for access to medical marijuana, which has shown to assist those suffering from seizure disorders.
“She was on her deathbed at Eglestone hospital,” Peake said. “I was struck with the question — what would I do if this was my child? That really hit home with me. I vowed to do whatever it took to help pass legislation to give Georgians an option.”
Many of Peake’s fellow representatives said he was committing political suicide.
“My colleagues thought I was crazy,” he said. “We faced opposition from law enforcement agencies and faith-based organizations, and the first bill failed miserably.”
Despite the failure of his original bill and opposition from various organizations, Peake persisted. Haleigh’s story had affected Peake on a personal level, and when he talked to others who faced similar situations, he saw support for the measure.
“The biggest opposition was that the bill was a slippery slope to recreational marijuana,” Peake said. “The interesting thing is, the Georgia Sheriff’s Association was vehemently opposed, but when I talked to [individual] sheriffs they would say the organization doesn’t speak for me. They would say their grandmother has cancer or their father has Parkinson’s disease and they were in favor of having the option of medical marijuana. They told me I’d never face trouble in their county. Most folks who get involved with this issue have been affected personally.”
In 2015, with Haleigh’s story gaining statewide attention, the measure named in her honor finally passed through the Georgia Legislature. It allowed for those suffering from eight ailments, including seizure disorders and terminal cancer, to legally possess up to 20 ounces of low-THC oil.
While those approved for medical marijuana use in the state can legally possess the substance, they must cross state lines to acquire it. Cultivation of marijuana, for recreational or medical use, is prohibited.
“I have faced a lot more opposition to the cultivation model,” Peake said. “I’ve introduced legislation for cultivation the last three years and have met opposition on all fronts, especially from the governor’s office. I have resigned that such a bill will not be passed until we have a new governor.”
Peake, who has become the figurehead of the medical marijuana movement in the state, announced he will not seek re-election this fall. However, the push to approve medical marijuana legislation could benefit from his absence because it can show he is not just a “one-man band,” he said.
“I’m leaving the effort a little unfinished, and I hate doing that, but it was good timing for me to move along,” Peake said. “But there are a significant amount of others who feel just as strongly as I do, and I think during the 2019 Legislature, you will see cultivation legislation again. The fight will continue. It’s not going away in Georgia.”
“Decriminalization” and the efforts in North Fulton
While lawmakers have balked at efforts to expand medical marijuana or recreational use in Georgia, some cities have taken up the cause.
Three cities in Georgia — Clarkston, South Fulton and Atlanta — have passed measures to decriminalize possession of one ounce or less of marijuana within their city boundaries.
Though possession is still illegal in these jurisdictions, the charges are far less severe than the state code.
Title 16 of the Georgia’s crimes and offenses codes states that a suspect apprehended with one ounce or less of marijuana can be charged with up to a year in jail or a $1,000 fine.
In Clarkston and South Fulton, suspects can still be charged with the state statute, but officers are given latitude to charge using the municipal code. In both cities, a fine is levied and no jail time is served for possession of small amounts under the city ordinance.
In October, the Atlanta City Council unanimously approved a similar bill, dropping its charges to a $75 fine and no jail time.
The push to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana is not limited to inside the perimeter. At least one local elected official is pushing for a similar measure in his North Fulton city. And he says he is not the only lawmaker in the area who supports decriminalization.
Johns Creek City Councilman Chris Coughlin presented a bill last November that mirrored the Atlanta law. The Johns Creek City Council discussed the measure in a work session but no formal vote was taken.
Coughlin, who says he favors legalizing recreational use, pushed for the measure because of the science supporting marijuana legalization, whether for recreational or medical use.
“At what point do we say, maybe we are not doing this drug war right?” Coughlin said. “We’ve been at it for 40 or 50 years, and the rates of use haven’t been impacted after we’ve pumped trillions of dollars into it and impacted lives.”
Coughlin’s argument for decriminalization in Johns Creek stems from the city’s location in the “heroin triangle,” where heroin use and overdoses have risen dramatically in recent years in affluent portions of North Fulton, Cobb and DeKalb counties.
A research scientist by trade, Coughlin trusts numbers, and he says studies show that heroin use is curbed where access to medical and recreational marijuana is permitted.
“What we found is overwhelmingly in those jurisdictions that allow for medical or recreational cannabis, overdoses to opiates, rates of addiction to them and overdose deaths have been dropping,” he said. “It’s not a correlation, with the statistical methods of controlling for other variables, you can prove causation. My main motivation was to show [the Johns Creek City Council] that cannabis access reduced opiate overdoses and deaths. It literally saves lives.”
Playing to a hostile crowd
But Coughlin said what transpired at the Nov. 27, 2017 work session where he proposed the measure mirrored decades of the state’s conservative approach to marijuana legislation.
Coughlin said unbeknownst to him, Mayor Mike Bodker had invited the city’s chief of police, municipal judge and prosecutor to speak on the measure.
“They were all fervently against it,” Coughlin said. “I think this is the Republicans downfall – that they look to law enforcement versus scientists and doctors to make healthcare-based decisions. It’s a Republican-led state, and Republicans are supposed to support small government and medical decisions made between you and your doctor. I don’t know why they have been fearful of helping their neighbors.”
Johns Creek prosecutor Larry Delan said at the meeting that the city works to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana “internally” through its court system.
“We treat just about every possession of marijuana case as a disorderly conduct without an arrest,” he said.
However, he said that when an offender only has to pay a fine, you lose the chance to help them from going “down the wrong path.”
Municipal Judge Donald Schaefer agreed.
“If you want to put it in perspective, it’s a parking ticket,” he said to the council. “That’s what [the City of Atlanta] has made marijuana. You can’t help anybody.”
Bodker said while he agreed with a push in the Legislature for medical marijuana, he would not support Coughlin’s measure.
“When you ask me to say the state of Georgia is not willing to change the law, and I just want the city of Johns Creek, in essence, to look the other way and not encourage people to follow the law, you don’t have me,” Bodker said.
Coughlin said he is not in favor of “putting our neighbors in cages” for possessing small amounts of the substance, one of many reasons for his measure.
“Decriminalization reduces opiate use and overdoses, it supports the health of veterans and children, it enables law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes, it allows us to save tax dollars to put to other things such as victim crimes and we can allocate our resources properly,” he said. “It’s not just one reason. Every factor supports decriminalization. I haven’t found a scientifically valid reason to oppose [decriminalization]. Until that day comes, I’ll continue to support it.”
Coughlin said he has company among other elected representatives in North Fulton, although he would not mention any names.
“I already have a number of councilmembers and commissioners that support decriminalization in the North Fulton area,” Coughlin said. “In Alpharetta and Roswell there are people who are supportive, and they are letting me be the guy to jump on the sword first, which I’m okay with.”
While discussions regarding decriminalization and legalization continue at the state and federal levels, Coughlin said it could be up to local cities to spur the movement.
“I’m a firm believer in local control,” he said. “And as far as the nationwide discussion, I think we will be able to proceed before the feds do.”