Pubdate: Sun, 12 Jul 2015
Source: Tampa Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2015 The Tribune Co.
Author: Joe Brown
Page: Metro, p.1


I last served on a jury in 2007. When the 25 or so of us were called
and brought into the courtroom, we were told the defendant was being
tried for drug trafficking a=C2=80" four dime bags of marijuana. About ha
of the people groaned in disA-belief, with one asking, "You brought us
all the way down here for this?"

A few said they thought drugs should be legalized. One woman told how
drug convictions ruined her brother's life. Others simply felt the
amount involved wasn't worth prosecuting.

The prosecuting attorney said she understood their feelings but the
defendant had broken a law that was on the books. And if any of us
didn't like the law, we needed to write to our lawmakers and get it
changed. Seven of us were selected.

(For the record, we ended up finding the guy not guilty. That's not to
say he was innocent, just that the prosecution failed to prove its
case beyond a reasonable doubt, which the judge instructed us the
state had to do.)

It was the first time I gave serious consideration to the need to
modify our drug laws. It made me think that, after all, when we arrest
and prosecute drug users, we simply are punishing them for punishing

I also thought back to a college roommate who was a heavy pot smoker.
Many a night I would enter our hazy dorm room, and it would resemble a
scene from a Cheech & Chong movie. I often wonder how he managed to
graduate, because he spent so much time looking for someone who would
sell him some weed.

Even though he was breaking the law, I never considered him a
criminal, however, and it would have been a shame if he had been
busted and had a record that might have affected his future employment

That was more than 40 years ago, but little has changed in the way we
treat marijuana users. In Miami-Dade County, however, a new law now is
in effect that will allow people caught with small amounts of
marijuana to be issued civil citations similar to parking tickets.
Apparently, law enforcement and lawmakers there decided pot-possession
prosecution and incarceration isn't worth it.

Many county prosecutors across the nation are doing the same thing.
Judging by the attitudes of some of the members of my jury pool, local
officials here in the Tampa Bay area might want to consider the same
thing. One who has gone on record favoring discussion of the matter is
Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger.

In Miami-Dade, Commissioner Sally Heyman says the new law is aimed at
sparing people a criminal record for possessing less than 20 grams of
marijuana and reducing the economic burden on Florida's largest
county, which spends about $43 million a year arresting and processing
low-level pot cases. Issuing citations instead will free money for
other purposes.

It's important to emphasize they didn't legalize marijuana. They
simply made possession of small amounts a misdemeanor offense that
results in a $100 ticket for a first infraction, which will help free
up jail space for real criminals and unclog the courts.

Preventing so many people from having a criminal record for getting
high is important because drug convictions can affect future
employment in addition to college admissions and eligibility for
military service. Overall, it's simply a more efficient and humane
drug strategy.

And if I polled some of the folks in that jury pool eight years ago,
they would agree.
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