Council debates marijuana ordinance change

Published 9:00 am Thursday, December 14, 2023

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The LaGrange City Council continued discussion on a request from the LaGrange Police Department to return to more stringent marijuana regulations and potentially eliminate the city’s current civil infraction for small amounts of marijuana.

Currently, the city has an ordinance that allows officers to charge individuals caught with less than an ounce of marijuana with a civil violation rather than a criminal one. The ordinance sets a civil fine of $100 for less than an ounce of marijuana with no jail time.

The issue was brought up during discussions of the violence on Main Street in Downtown LaGrange and subsequent murder on Daniel Street on the night of Nov. 3.

At the previous council work session, LaGrange Police Chief Garrett Fiveash asked the council to reconsider the ordinance and allow officers to go back to using the state charge exclusively, which he said would help remove troubled individuals in that type of situation and prevent them from returning to the scene.

Marijuana is still criminally illegal throughout the state with small amounts potentially carrying up to a $1,000 fine and jail time.

Also complicating the issue, Georgia has legalized hemp with THC concentrations of less than 0.3%. According to Major Dale Strickland, the GBI Crime Lab does not test for THC concentration in cases with less than 30 grams or felony cases such as the sale of marijuana. However, there are private labs that are certified to do the tests for state court, he said.

On Tuesday, Strickland proposed either doing away with the civil citation option or increasing the fine for small amounts of marijuana. Strickland also asked that the council allow officers to use either charge at their discretion. If the person with marijuana was not otherwise committing any crimes they could use the civil violation, he said.

“The problems that we’ve consistently seen are the open uses of marijuana. They’re openly using marijuana while driving. For folks that choose to do that, the current fine that we have at $100 does not seem to be a very big deterrent,” Strickland said.

The suggested change would set the initial fine at $250 for the first offense and $500 for any subsequent offense within five years.

Councilman Nathan Gaskin pushed back on the suggested change, saying that one incident outside a single location should not affect policy for the whole city indicating, 86’d, the bar where police had initially encountered the crowd, should be cited.

“I say cut the cancer. We’re talking about administering chemotherapy to the whole city instead of just cutting out one cancerous entity out,” Gaskin said.

“The problem with that, Mr. Gaskin, is that police showed up. They addressed the crowd. The crowd moved over to a different location and then you have a murder,” City Manager Meg Kelsey said, adding the city is also looking to address event centers where the homicide occurred as well.

At the previous council meeting, Councilman Leon Childs said that he agrees with going back to more stringent marijuana regulation.

“I’ve seen an uptick in crime after we changed the marijuana law, so I’m with it 100 percent and holding those businesses accountable,” Childs said during the Nov. 28 work session.

On Tuesday, Childs clarified with Strickland that indiviuals simply smoking marijuana would not face the more serious state charge unless they were otherwise involved other crimes. Childs also asked if the civil marijuana infraction would not go on people’s criminal record, which Strickland confirmed.

“On the civil citation, it would just be a larger fine and then a [bigger] subsequent fine if they continue to do that,” Strickland said, “We’d write a citation. They’d go to court, they pay for it or they’d pay for it before they go to court. Even if there’s a second offense, the next one’s a $500 fine.”

Gaskin reiterated that he wanted the potential change to only affect the downtown area.

“You’ve got people across the city, who smoke in their own houses, smoke on the back porch, they smoke on their front porch. And now all of a sudden, this becomes a situation that extends throughout the city with originally the problem and the complainant came from the downtown area. I say let’s confine this to the downtown area,” Gaskin said.

Ultimately, city staff was directed to prepare ordinances with options to consider at a future meeting.