National News

Caught with pot? Attitudes in Georgia shift but tough laws remain

Posted June 13, 2018 12:44 p.m. EDT

ATLANTA -- When Randy Cooper returned to his Douglasville, Georgia, home on a hot summer afternoon in August 2016 he was met by a phalanx of officers from the Governor's Drug Task Force, backed by an all-terrain vehicle and a helicopter circling overhead.

"I knew why they were there," said Cooper, 66. "I just couldn't believe it warranted such a response."

Cooper, formerly the City of Douglasville's horticulturist, had been growing marijuana plants in his back yard, amid the corn and tomatoes, to help his wife, Barbara, cope with an aneurysm on her aorta.

Georgia's new medical marijuana law was no help -- Barbara Cooper's malady wasn't covered. So her husband decided to grow the plants himself, figuring, like so many others have, that changing attitudes about marijuana would temper any possible punishment.

He was wrong. Prosecutors in Douglas County have offered Cooper a plea deal that would include two years in prison but he would rather take his chances with a jury.

Cooper's case underscores the widespread confusion and mixed messages surrounding marijuana in Georgia.

State laws have been eased so those suffering from certain illnesses can use cannabis oil but there is no legal way to bring the substance into Georgia or to cultivate it here. Some communities in metro Atlanta have effectively decriminalized pot, making possession punishable by a fine. Meanwhile, drug task forces in more rural areas still lock offenders up and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has urged a crackdown on pot offenses.

Agents seized roughly 20 plants, weighing approximately 2 pounds, from Cooper's backyard, which is adjacent to a middle school, complicating his defense. But his property is fenced off and the plants were concealed.

"It's never left this house," Cooper said.

Drug dealer? Cooper doesn't even own a cellphone.

Legal to have, illegal to get

In 2015, Georgia lawmakers said patients registered with the state could possess up to 20 ounces of cannabis oil, derived from the marijuana plant, to treat eight specific illnesses. They've since expanded the law twice to make eight more ailments eligible.

Retiring state Rep. Allen Peake, who sponsored the bills, acknowledges they encourage people to break the law. He might be even guilty of that himself.

A bill that would have allowed for a limited form of cultivation and manufacturing of the drug was defeated earlier this year after Gov. Nathan Deal announced his opposition. And federal law bans its transport across state lines.

The state estimated hundreds of thousands of residents could be eligible for the drug, but as of now only about 4,000 Georgians have signed up for the program, according to Peake. That number could double in July when chronic pain and PTSD join the registry of conditions that can be treated with cannabis oil, he said.

Peake said he now provides the oil, for free, to 600 people. As such, he's the state's biggest provider. He knows the manufacturer but says he doesn't know how it gets to his home in Macon. And he never buys more than 20 ounces at a time.

It's not a sustainable model, but navigating state law requires such unusual creativity.

"Our law forces people to break federal law to get it or break state law to cultivate it," Peake said.

'I decided this was going to be his last seizure'

They say they tried every medication prescribed to treat their 15-year-old son David's seizures. But the seizures, caused by a lesion on David's brain, continued, said his mother, Suzeanna Brill. She and her husband, Matthew, David's stepfather, were already wary of "Big Pharma" and the toxicity of some of the treatments.

But mostly, they were tired of seeing their son suffer. After considerable research, they settled on marijuana (though the scientific community is unsettled on whether it's an effective treatment for epileptic seizures).

"On February 7th, I decided this was going to be his last seizure," said Suzeanna Brill, 39. At the time David suffered several seizures daily. But the seizures stopped when he started smoking pot.

"He was able to sleep at night. He was able to talk properly," his mother said. "What I had was a normal 15-year-old boy."

For 71 days, David experienced normalcy for the first time. He rode his bike, lifted weights and showed an interest in school. And still, no seizures, according to his parents.

Then, on April 19, Suzeanna Brill said she shared the news with David's therapist. Later that day, deputies from the Twiggs County sheriff's office, acting on a tip from the state Division of Family and Children Services, showed up at the Brills home in Macon to investigate.

The Brills and David were all tested for marijuana; Suzeanna was the only one to test negative.

The following day the Brills were in jail, charged with reckless conduct. David was taken from the home by DFCS and subsequently "suffered one of the worst seizures of his life," Suzeanna Brill said. The Twiggs sheriff's office confirms the seizure occurred, and he would spend the next week in the hospital before being sent to a group home.

His parents spent that week in jail. They are allowed daily 10-minute phone calls with their son and weekly in-person visits. David is now taking doctor-prescribed Trileptal but his parents say his seizures have returned.

"Life's not so good" at the group home, Matthew Brill said. The Brills don't know when they'll get their son back and what they'll do to treat his seizures.

Peake said the Brills' case shows "the lunacy and fallacy of the state law."

"They found something that worked for their son and they took advantage of it. I get it," he said. "For the life of me I just don't understand how we continue to put people through this ordeal."

Meanwhile, Sheriff Darren Mitchum is defending his decision to arrest the Brills and separate them from their son.

"Whatever the law is, it's my job to enforce it," the Twiggs sheriff said. "The fact is that, as of today, marijuana is not legal in the state of Georgia to possess or smoke or use for recreational use. And that's it."

But Tom McCain, executive director of Peachtree NORML, a nationwide organization dedicated to reforming marijuana laws, said police departments routinely pick and choose which laws they are going to enforce.

"There is no adultery task force in Twiggs County," said McCain, a former deputy sheriff in Johnson and Laurens counties.

Fighting the inevitable

The Georgia Sheriff's Association has remained stalwart in its opposition to any expansion of the state's medical marijuana law.

"The further you crack the door, the closer you get to Colorado," where, in 2013, recreational pot use was legalized, said Terry Norris, the association's executive director. "For us it's a control and management issue. Who controls it? Who gets to grow it?"

So far, the opposition of the sheriff's association, aligned with conservative religious groups, has been difficult to overcome. The two Republicans vying to be Georgia's next governor, Casey Cagle and Brian Kemp, say they do not favor expanding the current law.

But Norris said he knows the tide is turning.

A recent poll commissioned by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that more than three-quarters of those surveyed said Georgia's medical marijuana program should be expanded, an increase from previous years.

Approval of marijuana legalization for recreational use also rose, with 50 percent of respondents backing legalization, compared with 46 percent last year.

Peake said Republicans could face serious electoral consequences down the road if they continue to obstruct efforts to legalize, or just decriminalize, pot.

"For millennials, there is no debate," Peake said. "There's a tidal wave of momentum across the country."

Fannin County resident Judena Beardmore is counting on it. She has just begun serving a 10-year prison sentence after accepting a deal in which she pleaded guilty to possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute. A change in the law could mean an adjustment to her sentence.

"I'm not going to do the 10 years," said the 58-year-old mother of two. "Something good is going to come out of it. I have to believe that."

North Georgia's "Pablo Escboar"

Beardmore's oldest daughter, Brittany Abt, warned her mother to be careful. Selling small amounts of medical marijuana under the counter, whatever her intentions, was dangerous, considering who she was and where they live.

"I knew they were going to put her away if they could," said Abt, 19.

As the proprietor of Caterpillar's, Fannin County's only head shop, selling everything from drug paraphernalia to sex toys to other adult diversions, Beardmore had run afoul of this bucolic mountain community's more conservative elements. But she, too, naively assumed that changing attitudes about pot would prevail.

"I certainly didn't expect 10 years in prison. I would've never taken that risk," said Beardmore, interviewed in the Fannin County Jail, where she awaits assignment to a state penitentiary.

It could've been much worse. She was hit with a 20-count indictment in December that cast her as the Pablo Escobar of North Georgia, said her attorney, David Farnham. The government also announced intentions to seize her home and other possessions.

Had she lived in, say metro Atlanta, she'd likely face minimal prison time -- "certainly not 10 years," said attorney Esther Panitch, citing Beardmore's clean record, age and the unlikelihood she would reoffend. As with the Brills' case, geography likely played a role in Beardmore's sentencing, said Stanley Atkins, a cannabis health care advocate with Peachtree NORML.

"This wouldn't have happened in South Fulton, Clarkston or Atlanta," he said. The War on Drugs, said Atkins, targets citizens who live in rural areas as much as it does people of color.

McCain, the ex-cop, put it bluntly.

"Your criminality shouldn't depend on your zip code," he said.

Story Filed By Cox Newspapers

For Use By Clients of the New York Times News Service