At the end of August, the town's city council approved an ordinance to reduce the criminal charge for minor cannabis possession from a misdemeanor to a civil offense. Under this new ordinance, anyone caught with up to an ounce of weed can be charged a maximum fine of $100, with no possibility of prison time. Before the change went into effect, anyone caught with literally any amount of weed could be fined $1,000 and locked behind bars for a year.
“I can’t speak highly enough about reducing penalties for marijuana,” said Tybee Island Council Member Monty Parks to the Savannah Morning News. “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.”
The new ordinance also gives the city six months to devise a plan for expunging the criminal records of Tybee Island residents who have previously been busted for minor pot possession. The council has already identified 250 pot-related arrests that have occurred since 2017, the year that the city began keeping electronic records of criminal charges. The council has yet to decide whether they will go to the trouble of expunging earlier charges recorded on paper, though.
Several Georgia towns and cities have decriminalized weed in the past two years, but most of these jurisdictions have voted to do so for practical reasons rather than social justice concerns. After the state legalized hemp in 2019, state and local cops soon found that their local crime labs could not detect the difference between illegal weed and legal hemp flower.
Before the hemp law passed, state cops were aggressively busting people for pot, even arresting 70 people at a party for one single bag of weed. But once the confusion over marijuana and hemp began, some cops have been forced to return bags of weed that they discovered during routine searches. Atlanta, Savannah, and other jurisdictions have opted to sidestep this headache by decriminalizing minor pot possession, freeing up police and court resources that would otherwise be wasted on prosecuting these crimes.
Tybee Island has also seen its pot possession cases shrink since the hemp law passed. Local cops were busting around 65 people a year for pot from 2017 to 2019, but last year, the total number of weed-related offenses dropped to 16. Tybee Island Police Department Chief Robert Bryson told the city council that decriminalizing minor pot possession would decrease the burden on police tasked with processing these misdemeanors.
"I don't think the charge is appropriate if we can't prove the case," Bryson told the Savannah Morning News. "It's just one of those things where the direction on it is just not there from the state."
"This is a very small step in a very small city," said City Council Member Nancy DeVetter, who proposed the ordinance to the council. "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."