Bill Torpy at Large: Georgia blowing smoke on pot laws

October 8, 2014 AJC employee, Bill Torpy. (CHRIS HUNT/SPECIAL)
An AJC poll recently found that more Georgians than not support legalizing marijuana for recreational use. We’re not talking about decriminalization here or pot brownies for cancer patients; we’re talking full-on, Colorado-style marijuana dispensaries.

Forty nine percent of those polled said they support legal weed for adults, while 48 percent disagreed. Registered voters, however, were 52-48 percent against. That’s because, I suppose, many pot supporters haven’t gotten around to registering yet.

The issue of medical marijuana is again at the Legislature, and even though 84 percent of Georgians support legalizing a pot-based medication, the bill was immediately watered down. The proposed legislation would give Georgia patients immunity from prosecution if they possessed or transported cannabis oil. But the section of the bill that would have allowed growing marijuana to create the oil (which doesn’t have the THC buzz) was dismissed out of hand. Not officially dismissed, but it was sent off to be studied, which is Legislaturese for sending it off to wither and die.

Lawmakers are wary of moving forward — even on something favored by the public — because they worry about being seen as soft on crime, which in Georgia is a political death sentence.

But the debate, says former prosecutor J. Tom Morgan, misses a larger point — marijuana laws have criminalized hundreds of thousands of Georgians through the decades, tagging them with arrest records that often return years later to damage otherwise stellar citizens.

“Kids are the ones getting busted because they are doing it in their cars or outside,” Morgan said, “while their parents are in their houses or at their lake homes” and not getting busted.

I guess that’s one of the benefits of having a mortgage.

Morgan spent more than 20 years sending people to prison, 12 as district attorney of DeKalb County. His office prosecuted felony cases of possession, which in Georgia is more than an ounce.

“I felt somewhat hypocritical,” he said of his dichotomy. “Certainly in college, I could have been charged with misdemeanor possession.”

And many of those kids brought their habit with them to adulthood. “I am aware of a large middle class and upper middle class population who still acquire marijuana.”

But those folks he’s referring to aren’t the usual suspects. Statistics show that black people are 3.7 times more likely than whites to get arrested for pot, even though both races smoke it at the same rate.

Message in the data: ease up, dude

Morgan, now a defense attorney handling mostly clients under 25 years old, said he has seen a sea-change in public attitudes about pot the past 10 years.

He’s right. In 2004, according to a Gallup poll, 64 percent of Americans opposed legalization while 34 percent said OK. Last year, it was 51-47 percent in favor. But the laws don’t seem to follow the American mood that says, “Ease up, dude.”

And police departments aren’t easing up. GBI figures show an almost 10 percent increase in misdemeanor possession cases from 2009 to 2013, when Georgia had 35,305 cases.

Danny Porter, the longtime D.A. in neighboring Gwinnett County, chuckled hearing some of Morgan’s contentions, suggesting his old friend should start growing a pony tail. “When he left prosecuting, he went to the other side. He’s fully adjusted in his role as a defense attorney.”

Porter is not for loosening up pot laws. He said the medical marijuana debate is a Trojan Horse where lobbyists are using images of kids in wheelchairs to further their cause, which is a for-profit pot dispensary at a corner near you.

Porter, who is chairman of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said the organization recently voted to oppose cultivation and manufacture of medicinal pot. They are OK with the THC-free oil for the kids with seizures.

The Gwinnett prosecutor said some of his friends do support decriminalization and think enforcement is a waste of time and money. “But where do we draw the line?”

‘Never seen an overachiever who used marijuana’

An ACLU study from a couple years ago said the U.S. spent more than $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana possession laws.

Porter’s opposition goes to the argument that pot just ain’t good for society.

“I would not want to go into brain surgery and have the surgeon come in smelling like weed,” he said. “I’ve never seen an overachiever who used marijuana.”

Growing up, he said, “most everyone I knew smoked marijuana.”

In fact, 38 percent of Americans have done so.

“But the marijuana we were familiar with is not the marijuana on the streets now,” he said. “It’s high-THC. It’s not our grandfathers’ marijuana any more.”

‘There’s a lot of not-arrests’

Police forces are showing signs of easing up, sometimes issuing misdemeanor citations when they find small amounts of marijuana.

“There’s also a lot of not-arrests” for pot, said Rosanna Szabo, Gwinnett’s solicitor, the prosecutor who handles misdemeanors. Many cities and the county have created local ordinances for cases of misdemeanor pot possession, making it a citation that doesn’t mean an automatic trip to jail, a decision based on discretion — generally, whether the officer is having a good day or not or if you don’t cop an attitude.

A good chunk of those cases can be done away with through pre-trial diversion, she said, adding that the term “record” is often overblown by legalization supporters.

“Is there a permanent (Georgia Crime Information Center) record? No, because there’s no fingerprints” taken, she said. “We appreciate (such run-ins with the law) have an impact on their employment potential.”

She didn’t want to guess how common the alternative semi-off-the-books effort is employed. But it is not infrequent.

Morgan believes his home state will eventually legalize recreational use like Colorado or at least decriminalize it.

“It will happen,” he said, “although Georgia will be the last state to do it.


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