Florida communities are rethinking marijuana arrests

florida marijuana hbtv hemp beach tv 2015In normal circumstances, this would be handled at the state level. But since the Florida Legislature is ruled by self-serving, ideological blowhards, it is being left up to individual municipalities to have grown-up discussions about marijuana. And in recent months, two of the state’s largest metropolitan areas have decided to all but decriminalize minor marijuana possession offenses. The Miami-Dade County Commission was the first to approve a measure that gives police the option to issue $100 civil citations — sort of like a traffic ticket — instead of charging someone with a criminal misdemeanor for possessing up to 20 grams of pot.

Police still have the option of making an arrest, or giving suspects a notice to appear in court, but the clear intent is to lessen the ramifications of small-time marijuana busts. A few days ago, the West Palm Beach City Commission gave preliminary approval to a similar law. Politicians in Broward and Alachua counties, as well as city officials in Key West, are also considering the idea.

Which brings us to today’s question:

Should leaders in Tampa Bay consider similar reforms? I would say yes. And I would say it emphatically. This is less an endorsement of marijuana and more an acknowledgement that current laws may actually do more harm than good. It is abundantly clear that prohibition is not going to rid the world of marijuana. It’s also clear that no matter what you think of marijuana’s drawbacks or benefits, it is not as dangerous as opiates or some of the synthetic drugs that have recently become popular.

So why are we wasting resources on something much of America considers, at worst, a harmless vice? Why are we risking potential criminal records that can impact job searches and adversely affect a person’s lifetime earning potential? When viewed as a cost/reward equation, it makes almost no sense to continue treating marijuana as a dangerous scourge in society. And that view is rapidly increasing across the nation. USA Today recently reported 19 states have decriminalized small amounts of marijuana to varying degrees.

I checked with five St. Petersburg City Council members Wednesday, and all were in favor of at least having a discussion. Pinellas County Commission members previously indicated an interest in talking about it. Tampa police Chief Eric Ward is in favor of civil citations, and St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway also is agreeable, but he did stipulate that it must be a countywide program. Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is strongly against the idea of local municipalities taking on the issue, but his objection is more logistical than philosophical.

Even if a law were passed at the county level, Gualtieri said individual cities could choose to opt out. And it wouldn’t change how the Florida Highway Patrol enforced state laws. He also questions the justice in merely writing a civil citation for 19 grams of pot — which could be rolled into more than 30 joints — while a 20-year-old college student standing on the next corner could still be arrested for drinking a beer.

“I would be more than willing to call for this debate on the state level, where they can have a dialogue that takes into account what voters are thinking and come up with good public policy,” Gualtieri said. “But just because the Legislature won’t do what they should be doing in terms of this discussion doesn’t mean it should be decided locally. “That’s just not a good solution.”

Gualtieri’s concerns are completely valid. There should not be a mishmash of laws that change from county to county or even city to city. Unfortunately, state legislators won’t have an honest discussion about it. Deciding this issue on a local level is not ideal, but it’s still better than clinging to laws that have proved to be largely ineffective and often counterproductive. It’s past time to correct this state’s ill-advised anti-marijuana crusade.

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