Nancy helps pass marijuana decriminalization on Tybee Island

Savannah Morning News – September 1, 2021

Tybee Island has passed an ordinance reducing penalties for marijuana possession of one ounce or less, joining the City of Savannah, Chatham County and a handful of other jurisdictions in Georgia that have decriminalized minor possession in recent years.

Savannah decriminalized marijuana in 2018. Chatham County did likewise in 2020.

The Tybee council’s 4-2 vote during the Aug. 26 meeting reduced marijuana possession of an ounce or less from a criminal offense to a civil one. The law also calls on authorities to explore expunging past marijuana misdemeanors from offenders’ records.

“I strongly believe that governments are best positioned to address large amounts of old criminal records that shouldn’t be relevant anymore,” said Council Member Nancy DeVetter, who brought the proposal to council.

The City of Savannah and Chatham County made similar moves within the past three years, but, as the Savannah Morning News previously reported, there are some key differences in Tybee’s ordinance that make it more progressive, namely expungements and the dropping of officer discretion.

Under Savannah’s and Chatham County‘s ordinances, police officers can choose between arresting someone or issuing a $150 citation. The Savannah Morning News previously reported that officer discretion sometimes led to different outcomes for similar situations.

Tybee’s law would automatically classify the minor possession as a $150 citation if not charged with another violation. But officers would further have the option to choose to ticket or not.

“I can’t speak highly enough about reducing penalties for marijuana,” said Council Member Monty Parks, “One of the key parts about this ordinance is that we are not just reducing the fine, we are reducing it from a misdemeanor to a civil penalty. This is very unique, this is very powerful and this is a strong message to Atlanta that we’re ready and we’re responsible adults.”

At least 12 cities or counties in Georgia, including Atlanta, have passed local laws reducing penalties for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana. Efforts to decriminalize or legalize marijuana statewide are ongoing, but treatment for minor possession remains patchwork for now between jurisdictions.

Tybee Island Police Department Chief Robert Bryson brought up marijuana possession cases to DeVetter as a multi-faceted issue the department was facing.

While reducing penalties for minor marijuana possession naturally would lessen the burden on officers in processing the misdemeanors, a dilemma remains.

A Georgia bill legalizing hemp farming in 2019 left law enforcement in the lurch as oftentimes officers can’t differentiate between legal hemp plants and marijuana due to lack of testing at the local level.

While the ordinance doesn’t solve the issue, Bryson said it makes sense to decriminalize and avoid prosecution.

“I don’t think the charge is appropriate if we can’t prove the case,” said Bryson. “It’s just one of those things where the direction on it is just not there from the state.”

Tybee’s number of marijuana-related offenses in 2020 dropped to 16. From 2017 to 2019, the number averaged 65 yearly. Bryson said the reason is unclear but may possibly be a result of the confusion after the hemp bill passed. The drop could also be related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s possible they’re destroying it more because we’re not able to prosecute people for it,” said Bryson.

The expungement portion of the ordinance, also known as record restriction, will be more fully outlined six months from when the ordinance goes into effect. DeVetter said they hope to have information such as how far back Tybee will extend the expungements and how long that process will take available by that time, though it could take longer.

DeVetter said that expunging misdemeanor arrests starting from 2017 would be simpler because those involve electronic records. However, the challenge comes from records existing before 2017, which may require pulling analog data from the courts.

The city found that there were about 250 marijuana-related offenses in the last four years. However, it’s unclear how many of those charges are related to larger cases. For instance, a motorist charged with driving under the influence may also face marijuana possession charges if the drug was found during the DUI traffic stop.

According to Georgia law, expungements can only apply to pure misdemeanor marijuana convictions. Sifting through those cases and determining which ones have multiple charges is also part of the challenge, but expungement is a crucial part of the ordinance, said DeVetter.

“It’s unfair for us to reduce things to not a crime when people are still stuck with a stigma of having an arrest record against them,” said DeVetter. 

Additionally, she clarified that expungements do not mean past records will be erased, only sealed from the public. Law enforcement, including the arresting officer, will still have access to those records in the event of checking repeat offenders.

“This is a very small step in a very small city,” said DeVetter, “but I think this is a good, bold way to say that we are going to look at this problem holistically and look at both the past as well as the future.”

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