Understanding how to reform Georgia cannabis law can be tricky but it’s an important part of this movement and any other activist movement in Georgia. There are different ways to reform Georgia cannabis law at the state and city level. You can read more about the options below.
Constitutional Amendments in Georgia
In order to reform Georgia cannabis law, we can amend the Georgia constitution through a “legislatively referred constitutional amendment.” This means that lawmakers decide to let Georgia citizens vote on an amendment through a ballot process. In order for the legislature to let citizens vote on a ballot initiative like cannabis decriminalization, there must be a two-thirds majority vote in both the legislative chambers.
This means the Georgia State Senate and the Georgia State House of Representatives must both vote on including the amendment on the ballot. AND at least two-thirds (2/3) of both chambers must approve the decision in order for it to go on the ballot.
The voting does not rely upon a simple majority of 51% but a “supermajority” rule of two-thirds. That means 120 votes in the House and 38 votes in the Senate.
What about Washington, D.C.? They petitioned to vote on the issue.
Georgia’s constitution “does not currently allow for any form of citizen initiated ballot measures, so all ballot measures must be referred by the legislature.”
The District of Columbia allows for “citizen initiated ballot measures” but Georgia does not.
Citizen Initiated Ballot Measure
This means if enough citizens sign a petition in support of an initiative, the issue will be placed on the ballot and it does not require the legislature’s approval. Essentially, it serves as a bypass of the legislature.
This is a powerful form of direct democracy. However, it is not something that is allowed in Georgia’s constitution. This means it is not an option.
Instead, one or more Georgia legislators must sponsor the ballot measure in order for it to go to a vote in the two chambers. Then, each chamber must vote in support of the ballot measure by at least two-thirds in order for it to be on the ballot on election day.
What do we do when an Amendment goes to the ballot?
After Georgia voters apply enough pressure, state lawmakers will eventually decide to let the voters decide on the issue of cannabis decriminalization. Then it is critical that Georgians show up to vote and make their voice heard. It could be in a presidential election year or an off year, or it’s even possible that it could be a special election which would make it even harder to get a high turnout.
We know that Georgians care about this issue and we suspect that given the opportunity to vote on it, they will come out to make their opinions known and help reform Georgia cannabis law.
Can Cities Reform Georgia Cannabis Law?
Thanks to Amendment 9 and the power of municipal courts, Georgia cities have the ability to significantly reduce the harmful impact of state cannabis law. City ordinances can limit the punishment for low-level possession within a city’s jurisdiction. This can help most people avoid arrest, criminal charges, and heavy fines.
However, Georgia cities are not able to change their laws in such a way that would violate state law. As a result, full decriminalization or legalization will not happen in cities until state laws change.
The City of Clarkston passed an ordinance that only requires a $75 fine for the possession of up to one ounce of cannabis. They became the first city to do this in Georgia.
The Georgia constitution also allow cities to use the citizen initiated ballot process to change certain city level laws, like the punishment of a crime that falls under the city’s jurisdiction.
Power of Municipal Courts
Georgia’s legal code grants cities the right to a municipal court (§ 36-32). The subsection of code below (§ 36-32-6) outlines Georgia municipalities’ jurisdiction rights over misdemeanor possession charges. This, again, means a municipality can choose to decide how to handle misdemeanor possession cases. This is further demonstration of the legal ability to reform Georgia cannabis law at the city level.
Georgia Code 36-32-6
(a) The municipal court of any municipality is granted jurisdiction to try and dispose of cases where a person is charged with the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana if the offense occurred within the corporate limits of such municipality. The jurisdiction of any such court shall be concurrent with the jurisdiction of any other courts within the county having jurisdiction to try and dispose of such cases.
(b) Any fines and bond forfeitures arising from the prosecution of such cases shall be retained by the municipality and shall be paid into the treasury of such municipality.
(c) Any defendant charged with possession of an ounce or less of marijuana in a municipal court shall be entitled on request to have the case against him or her transferred to the court having general misdemeanor jurisdiction in the county wherein the alleged offense occurred.
(d) Nothing in this Code section shall be construed to give any municipality the right to impose a fine or punish by imprisonment in excess of the limits as set forth in the municipality’s charter.
The Georgia Jurisdiction of Marijuana Cases Amendment is the name of Amendment 9. It was on the ballot in Georgia on November 4, 1980, as a “legislatively referred constitutional amendment.”
The text of that 1980 ballot initiative was only as follows:
“Shall the Constitution be amended so as to grant jurisdiction to the recorder’s, mayor’s, or police courts of any municipality to try and dispose of cases where a person is charged with the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana?”
It passed with 65% of the vote and so the amendment became law. It grants jurisdiction to “recorder’s, mayor’s or police courts of any municipality to dispose of any case where a person is charged with the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana.”
What does this mean? It means that municipal courts handle the criminal possession charges and trials for one ounce of marijuana or less. Cities can therefore define their punishment for low-level cannabis possession. Additionally, it means cities receive the revenue from any imposed fines.
City-Level Citizen Initiated Ballot Process
Georgia citizens cannot bring a ballot initiative to a public vote at the state level through a petition process. But this is possible at the city level, thanks to Georgia’s legal code (§ 36-35-3).
The city’s charter must also provide for this. Almost every city in Georgia does allow this. The law surrounding merged city-county municipalities remains less clear. Cities enjoy a high level of ‘home rule’ powers in Georgia. Therefore, we must consider each city individually when contemplating reform efforts.
The rules for this process come from the state constitution and are outlined below:
- The petition must clearly indicate the text of the ordinance.
- It must be an official petition form from the City Clerk’s office.
- The necessary signatures must be collected within 60 days from the time the Clerk provides the petition.
- There are signature requirements based on the population size of the community.
- The percentage refers not to the entire population but to all people registered to vote in the previous election.
- Less than 5k – 25%
- 5k-100k – 20%
- 100k+ – 25%
If there are enough signatures, the city then has 50 days to verify the legitimacy of the signatures. Then they have a week to call a special election.
A special election means the ballot initiative is very possibly the only thing people will be voting on. Therefore, voter turnout could prove very difficult, as well as critical for success.
We hope this information helps explain how it’s possible to reform Georgia cannabis law. We can make change happen at both the state and the city level, so please help support our work.
How Can I Help?
There’s three important ways you can help:
Give Online Now
2. Spread the Word
We need your help spreading the word about this issue so Georgians will be ready to speak on this issue when the time comes. Educate yourself and then try to educate your friends and family, gently. Share our website on Facebook, or email it to your friends.
You can join our City by City initiative and help change the law in your city.
Or you might be able to Volunteer in other ways.