NORTH FULTON/FORSYTH COUNTY, Ga. — Marijuana – and people’s perception of the plant – has changed since it first found footing in the international market more than 100 years ago.

Global attitudes toward the plant and its psychoactive properties have become even more fluid over the past two decades, particularly in the United States.

Marijuana and its derivatives are now legal for medical uses in all but six states and has been legalized for recreational use in eight states and Washington D.C.

While a growing number of Americans favor liberalized laws governing the use of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes, many lawmakers and law enforcement agencies remain opposed.

In 2015, the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation allowing the possession of low-THC oils by residents suffering from eight ailments. In the 2018 legislative session, chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder were added to the list of permitted uses.

While possession of cannabis oils for medical use is permitted for qualified patients, cultivation of marijuana in the state remains illegal.

In North Fulton, marijuana use and trafficking does not appear to be at crisis levels, at least according to local law enforcement officials.

Authorities have devoted more focus recently to harder drugs, opioids in particular.

Law enforcement departments in Johns Creek, Alpharetta and Forsyth County formed a drug task force earlier this year, pooling resources from all three agencies to track and combat the opioid trade that has swelled in the area.

As far as marijuana, police in Alpharetta and Milton say users discovered in their cities are usually found with small amounts, and generally the marijuana is discovered during traffic stops.

Alpharetta Public Safety Director John Robison said felony arrests for marijuana are infrequent.

“In day-to-day operations, we will occasionally make felony arrests where [a suspect] has a large amount or we charge with intent to distribute, but even then, it may not be a trafficker but someone just selling dope on the side,” Robison said.

Local law enforcement agencies enforce marijuana laws that mirror the state’s approach, though recent discussions in one North Fulton city called for drastically reducing the charges for suspects apprehended with less than one ounce of the drug. The measure was similar to an ordinance passed by the Atlanta City Council last year.

Records from police in Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Milton, Roswell and Forsyth County show that from September 2016 to September 2017, nearly 600 people were either arrested or cited for possessing under one ounce of marijuana where there were no other major offenses.

Getting high and how marijuana affects the body

Marijuana has become significantly more potent in the last two decades, and alternative forms, from edibles, oils and topical applications, have gained popularity.

The use of marijuana falls into two distinct categories — recreation and medical use.

Marijuana’s recreational use, consumed or smoked to produce a pleasurable “high,” can be attributed to the presence of tetrahydrocannabinol in the plant. Much of the THC is concentrated in the buds and leaves and is significantly lower in the stems and seeds.

When marijuana is ingested, the THC enters the bloodstream and is distributed to the brain and “overactivates” cell receptors to produce a high. Smoking marijuana allows the THC to enter the bloodstream almost immediately while ingesting it usually results in a delayed effect.

In recent years it has become easier to obtain a more pronounced high with less of the drug due to its rise in potency.

A recent University of Mississippi study found that the levels of THC in marijuana tripled between 1995 and 2014.

Though long-term scientific studies have been conducted on recreational marijuana use and its effects on cognitive abilities, some of the data have been contradictory. A 2012 study conducted in New Zealand concluded that adolescents who use marijuana can lose IQ points that will not be recovered later in life. Conversely, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that marijuana’s impact on cognitive ability diminished for just three days after use.

On the medical side, cannabidiol and low-THC oils have become a popular alternative to prescription drugs in treating certain serious medical ailments or diseases. Medical marijuana can also be used by patients suffering from end-stage cancer and other terminal diseases to help mitigate the pain associated with the disease.

Forms of marijuana and what local law enforcement are seeing

Alternative forms of marijuana, including edibles, oils, topical extracts, electronic cigarette liquids and other forms, are gaining popularity.

A recent study conducted by Arcview Market Research on consumption in states where recreational use is legal found a sharp increase in use of alternative forms of marijuana.

After recreational use was permitted in Colorado in 2012, the study found that the growth of non-leaf forms of the drug have outpaced traditional flower sales.

In 2016, barely over half – 56 percent – of recreational sales came from dried flowers. Edibles more than tripled in sales the same year.

While the popularity of alternative forms of marijuana may be growing in other areas, local law enforcement agencies are still confiscating mainly leaf forms.

“Most of the arrests we make in our uniform operations are still pretty much leaf form,” said Alpharetta’s Robison. “We will see some liquid or butters or things like that every once and a while, but for the most part it’s still pretty standard [forms].”

Milton Police Chief Rich Austin said the same.

“We really have not seen an increase in oils or other forms of marijuana to a great extent,” he said.

However, Robison said that detecting alternative forms of marijuana can be challenging.

“Sometimes when you pull a car over, the window opens and the smell of marijuana reeks,” he said. “But some of the other substances might not be as strong. There is no perfect training or perfect amount of training you can do, but we try to keep our officers up to date on current trends, new trends that are coming and things to look out for.”

Part two of Marijuana’s hazy boundaries will cover the history of marijuana legislation in Georgia and a push to decriminalize possession of small amounts in North Fulton.

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