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How other Georgia cities handle reduced penalties for marijuana possession

Macon is following other Georgia cities like Statesboro, after passing an ordinance that reduces penalties for marijuana possession of less than an ounce

MACON, Ga. — Last month, some people rejoiced after Bibb County commissioners passed an ordinance to reduce penalties for marijuana possession of less than an ounce to a $75 fine.

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Supporters hope it will save time for the Bibb County Sheriff’s Office, clear up space in the county jail, and keep drug charges off younger offenders' permanent records.

Macon is following the lead of other cities in Georgia like Statesboro, home to Georgia Southern University.

Brian Thompson owns Reece's Pieces.

"I’ve literally seen so many kids come here with dreams. 'I'm going to be a psychologist, I'm going to go do this,' and they get caught smoking a joint," said Thompson.

At his store, he sells "water pipes." Many of his customers are college students.  

"I have seen hundreds, if not thousands, of students come to school, get caught with a little bit of weed four years into school, and ruin their career that's up and coming," said Thompson.

Statesboro Police Chief Mike Broadhead says city council passed an ordinance to give his officers a choice. They can cite someone with less than an ounce of weed with a $500 fine and a misdemeanor charge.

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"They're trying to get employed and they can't, because they have drug possession on (their) record," said Broadhead.

That ordinance went into effect in January in Statesboro. Since then, they've had more than 100 cases of people caught with less than an ounce of marijuana. 38% of those were given a citation and then let go under this new ordinance. The remaining 62% were left to be prosecuted under state law, which constitutes a $1,000 fine or a year of jail time.

Broadhead says he actually saw an increase in arrests at first, because people mistakenly thought pot users would only face a fine.

He says if an officer suspects a person won't show up to court, or if they have a record of drug abuse, officers are encouraged to charge them under the tougher state law. That happens about two-thirds of the time.

Pastor Rufus Williams sells watermelons at the edge of the city limits, but when he was a younger, he says he used to sell weed. He went to jail for it.

"It robs you of your senses. You're not the same person," said Williams.

He says the $500 fine is still too high.

"How are you going to pay $500 in a fine fee, and you don't have the money to do it. Then you're going to skip court. You're going to have a more serious fine then,” said Williams.

Broadhead says it's been a little adjustment for his officers.

"What we've seen is the officers start to transition more over the last couple of months to understanding it's a tool they can use," said Broadhead.

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Broadhead says the ordinance saves his officers about 20 minutes in the field, the county's jail is barely impacted, and most violators still wait to be prosecuted under state law.

He says the ordinance gives officers the opportunity to decide, but it could take five years to really see what kind of impacts occur.

Broadhead says in the first month, officers charged nearly 90% of people in Statesboro under the tougher state law, but now they are getting more comfortable using the new law.

The Bibb County Sheriff's Office says it's working on training officers on how to handle marijuana possession cases under the new ordinance here.

RELATED: 'It gives you another option:' Law enforcement says you could still face jail time despite marijuana ordinance

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