Pubdate: Tue, 12 Jan 2016
Source: Tampa Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2016 The Tribune Co.
Author: Christopher O'Donnell, Tribune staff
Page: A1


Those Caught With A Small Amount Would Face Citations Instead Of Jail

TAMPA - Close to 1,900 arrests made by Tampa police last year 
included charges of possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The crime is a first-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to one year 
in prison or probation and a $1,000 file. Offenders can also lose 
their driver's license for two years, making it tough to hang onto a job.

A conviction comes with the lifelong stigma of a criminal record, a 
bar to jobs in law enforcement and the armed services, and 
eligibility for public housing and some college scholarships.

Tampa could change that with its new move to join communities 
including Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties that last year adopted 
laws allowing police to issue civil citations instead of pursue jail 
time for people caught with less than 20 grams of marijuana.

Under the proposal, a citation would carry a fine and could require 
mandatory drug counseling but would hold no more weight than a traffic ticket.

'What the country and certainly mayors have realized is incarcerating 
people, particularly young people, for a very small amount of 
marijuana absolutely alters their career path for the rest of their 
life,' said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. 'Once they get into that prison 
system, they are forever scarred; they forever have a prison record.' 
Tampa attorneys have for the past six months been drafting a citation 
ordinance that could go before the city council in the next few 
weeks. Across Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg is also moving ahead with a 
similar initiative.

The cities lag behind other regions of the United States that have 
used civil citations for decades, said Allen St. Pierre, executive 
director with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana 
Laws, a Washington, D.C.based advocacy group. Civil citations were 
adopted by leaders of many college towns - including Ann Arbor, 
Michigan, and Madison, Wisconsin - as far back as the 1970s, St. Pierre said.

The move by Florida communities to adopt citations stems in part from 
concern about the cost of enforcing drug laws. It also may reflect 
changing attitudes about use of the drug now legal for recreational 
purposes in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia.

'Usually, we have to go on bended knee armed with loads of data to 
make a persuasive argument to change the law,' St. Pierre said. 
'Almost all the people leading those efforts are baby boomers; they 
have a much greater propensity to favor reform than the World War II 
generation.' Marijuana arrests disproportionately fall on black and 
Hispanic people, a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union study found.

Between 2001 and 2010, there were 8 million arrests, of which 88 
percent were for possession. The report found that black people were 
3.73 times more likely to be arrested for possession than their white 
counterparts even though marijuana use is roughly the same between 
the two groups.

A switch to citations would help employment levels in communities 
with a high number of minorities, helping alleviate high poverty 
levels in those communities, St. Pierre said.

Florida communities that have adopted civil citations levy a range of 
fines for possession.

Miami Beach and Miami-Dade County fines are $100. Hallandale Beach 
has escalating fines from $200 for the first offense and $250 for the 
next. Leon County limits citations to first-time offenders, who are 
required to get drug counseling but are not fined.

In most cases, the decision whether to issue a citation is left to 
the discretion of the arresting officer. Buckhorn said juveniles 
found in possession would be directed to drug court and counseling.

Of the almost 1,900 cases of marijuana possession in Tampa in 2015, 
many were in conjunction with other charges so a citation may not be 
appropriate, said Andrea Davis, Tampa Police Department spokeswoman.

The Tampa ordinance would have to be approved at two public hearings 
to become law.

Councilman Charlie Miranda said he has mixed feelings about 
supporting the reduced penalty for a drug illegal under federal law.

'If they're going to take it apart little by little, what's to say 
you can't use it all the time?' he said. 'I was raised under a 
different system. When you did wrong, you pay for it.' Councilman 
Harry Cohen, who last week called for a report on how other cities 
are handling the issue, said the move will likely free up police 
resources and lower court and jail costs without legalizing the drug.

'This is about what is the appropriate penalty, not if there is going 
to be any penalty at all,' Cohen said.
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