Pubdate: Fri, 04 Mar 2016
Source: Tampa Tribune (FL)
Copyright: 2016 The Tribune Co.
Author: Christopher O'Donnell


Possession of Up to 20 Grams Would Be a Civil Citation

TAMPA - Despite concerns it does not do enough to deter repeat 
offenders, the Tampa City Council on Thursday voted for a new law 
that lowers the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana 
to a civil citation.

Council members voted 6-1 to adopt the law, which gives city police 
the option to issue a civil citation for possession of up to 20 grams 
of marijuana, roughly three quarters of an ounce.

The measure is intended to prevent offenders winding up with the 
lifelong stigma of a criminal record that can hinder job, scholarship 
and housing opportunities.

Council members said it will also free up police and the courts.

Possession of 20 grams of marijuana or less would be a first-degree 
misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison or probation and a 
$1,000 file. Offenders could also lose their driver's license for up 
to one year, making it tough to hang onto a job.

Under the new law, offenders would face a fine of $75 for a first 
offense. That rises to $150 for a second offense, $300 for a third 
and $450 for a subsequent violation.

Council members said the law will help reduce the number of arrests 
of young people, especially young black men.

A 2013 study by the ACLU showed that blacks are 3.7 times more likely 
to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites even though 
marijuana use is roughly even between the two groups.

"These laws are prosecuted in a way that disproportionately burdens 
minorities and people who do not have money," said Councilman Harry 
Cohen. "It's time to wake up and start evening the playing field for 
our cities."

A second hearing on the new law is set for March 17. It would go into 
effect once signed by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. He and Tampa Police 
Chief Eric Ward have indicated they support the measure.

The lone "nay" vote on the council came from Charlie Miranda. He said 
20 grams was too much marijuana for an individual and also questioned 
why there was no limit on the number of citations an individual could 
get before arrest.

"You can't go on forever and not have a record," Miranda said. 
"There's got to be a limit."

Miranda's criticism was shared by the Hillsborough County Anti Drug 
Alliance. Members of the group said marijuana use often leads to use 
of harder drugs.

In the week leading up to the meeting, leaders of the group lobbied 
council members to add mandatory drug counseling to a citation.

Chairwoman Ellen Snelling said her daughter became a drug addict 
while at high school.

Her recovery only came after she was arrested and sent to drug court 
where she was ordered to get counseling.

"I think sometimes an arrest can put a person on the right path," 
Snelling said.

Council members said they will monitor the level of repeat offenses 
through twice-yearly reports and can tweak the ordinance if needed.

Counseling could only be provided by the county through its social 
services, said Councilman Mike Suarez.

Many members of the public who came to support the new law tied the 
move to the push for legalization of medical marijuana, which could 
be on the ballot as an amendment to the state constitution in November.

A similar measure in 2014 narrowly failed.

Council members stressed the new law is not intended to encourage use 
of the drug but merely to prevent offenders from entering the 
criminal justice system.

"This has nothing to do with legalizing marijuana, nothing to do with 
getting this on the ballot in November," said Council Chairman Frank 
Reddick, who said many of his constituents in his East Tampa district 
are unemployed because they made a single mistake. "My brothers and 
sisters are having their future and lives destroyed because they 
don't have a second choice."

Close to 1,900 arrests made by Tampa police last year included 
charges of possession of small amounts of marijuana. Not all those 
arrested would be eligible for civil citation since some also had 
other charges.

People with a criminal record are prevented from careers that include 
law enforcement and the military. Some scholarship applications also 
preclude people with convictions.

"We have to stop jailing people over this illegal vegetation," said 
Hector Valdes, a Forest Hills resident. "Every time someone is 
getting arrested for small possession, their lives are being ruined."

Other communities, including Miami-Dade and Palm Beach County, have 
already adopted similar laws.

St. Petersburg began issuing civil citations for juveniles in early 
2015 for first offenses involving misdemeanors including possession, 
said city spokesman Ben Kirby. Mayor Rick Kriseman and Chief Anthony 
Holloway are discussing an expansion of the program to include adults.

Even when offenders end up receiving a citation for possession, the 
experience will be nothing like receiving a speeding ticket, said 
Tampa Police Department Attorney Kirby Rainsberger.

An offender would likely still be handcuffed and put in the back of a 
police car until the officer is satisfied no law has been broken.

"Everything in that car will be searched," Rainsberger said. "The 
marijuana discovered will be confiscated by the police department."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom