Speaker Ralston vows new Ga. Hemp law won’t lead to recreational weed

By: - August 21, 2019 8:40 am

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston said Tuesday he won’t let the state’s new hemp law open a path to recreational pot while he spoke to lawmakers studying rural development. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder.

Jasper, GA – Some local agencies created a buzz recently when they said they would dismiss misdemeanor cases or no longer charge people for small amounts of pot, citing their inability to distinguish the difference between marijuana and now-legal hemp.

House Speaker David Ralston has a message for them: Not so fast.

The Blue Ridge Republican told a legislative panel focused on rural Georgia Tuesday that he was baffled by the metro Atlanta departments’ decision. He said a new testing system was in the works at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation that will nip the situation in the bud.

“So if they want to legalize dope in their county, they need to come see us and talk about it on the state level, because I’m not going to support it but I will support hemp,” Ralston said.

“I don’t know how we got to this point, but we’re about to come out of it,” he said.

State lawmakers passed a hemp measure this year after 2018 federal farm bill legalized the cousin of cannabis in hopes of

Hemp plants being grown and researched in Oregon. Photo by Jay Noller, courtesy of Oregon State University.

giving Georgia farmers a new crop to grow. Hemp only contains 0.3% THC, which is the compound that causes a high.

The state Department of Agriculture has proposed rules for the program and is accepting public comment.

“We can all read the newspaper and see what’s going on in Gwinnett County and some of the things that I don’t think any of us ever saw coming,” said Jack Spruill, marketing director with the department. “And that causes us to have a little bit of a pause.”

Spruill was referring to news reports that some prosecutors and law enforcement agencies in Gwinnett, DeKalb and Cobb counties had recently said they would back off minor pot possession cases because of the testing conundrum.

Ralston urged the department to “move on with those rules and regs.” He said in an interview with the Georgia Recorder afterwards that he believed the GBI’s new testing capability would address the confusion.

But the bureau’s new testing protocol still won’t address a key part of enforcement: Testing small amounts of marijuana and hemp out in the field.

Starting Sept. 3, the GBI’s main lab will begin testing larger samples that are at least 30 grams, with an emphasis on trafficking cases. Regional labs will start doing the same in late September.

“The GBI Crime Lab is still trying to find/develop protocols that would allow certified marijuana examiners to be able to distinguish hemp from marijuana,” Nelly Miles, public affairs director, said in a statement Tuesday. “To date, no test has been found or developed. The lab will continue its efforts in this area.”

Ralston’s director of communications, Kaleb McMichen, said later that the speaker will work with law enforcement to determine whatever needs to be done.

“The bottom line is the Speaker stands firmly opposed to the legalization of recreational drug use,” McMichen said. “Recreational marijuana use is illegal in Georgia and that will not change on Speaker Ralston’s watch.”

State reps. John Corbett, Sam Watson and Rick Jasperse enjoy a lighter moment during a meeting of the House Rural Development Council held Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019. The three are the council’s new leadership.
Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

During a lighter moment at Tuesday’s meeting, Ralston told the hemp bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Corbett, that he defended Corbett at a recent law enforcement meeting in Savannah.

“I said, ‘No, he’s not a pothead,’” Ralston said to laughter. “He’s not trying to change Georgia into the next Colorado.”

Corbett said in an interview later that he thinks the confusion should be attributed to the new federal law, not his.

“I’m getting a lot of undeserved credit, let’s put it that way,” he said.

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.