Fines rather than arrests will now be the approach for people found in possession of small amounts of marijuana after the Tampa City Council on Thursday gave final approval to a new law that downgrades the offense to a civil citation.
Council members voted 5-1 to adopt the ordinance, which gives city police the option to issue a fine for adults found with up to 20 grams, roughly three-quarters of an ounce, of marijuana. The new law is expected to go into effect within a few days once signed by Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who supports the measure.
City leaders say it will prevent offenders from being saddled with the life-long stigma of a criminal record that can hinder job, scholarship and housing opportunities. They also hope it will free the resources of police and courts.
It also comes at a time when there have been increasing calls to end incarceration of non-violent offenders. Under state law, possession of up to 20 grams of marijuana a first degree misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in prison or probation and a $1,000 file. Offenders can also lose their driving license for up to one year, making it tough to hang onto a job.
The new city law would instead fine offenders $75 for a first offense. That rises to $150 for a second offense, $300 for a third and $450 for subsequent violations.
The decision to issue a civil citation will be at the discretion of the officer but suspects could still be charged for possession if they are suspected of other crimes, for example.
At least half a dozen Florida communities including Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties have adopted similar laws. St. Petersburg began issuing civil citations for juveniles in early 2015 for first offences for misdemeanors including possession and is considering a similar policy for adults.
Tampa’s program is opposed by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and members of the Hillsborough County Anti Drug Alliance, who attended the public hearing at Tampa City Hall on Thursday.
“It really is a dangerous drug,” said anti drug alliance member Ellen Snelling, who said her daughter is a recovering addict. “It’s much more potent than back in the ‘70s. This is not your daddy’s pot.”
Members of the group also criticized the city for not mandating drug counseling or education for people who are fined. They want Tampa to emulate Leon County where offenders who are cited must also undergo assessment, work some community service hours and take part in intervention services about their drug use.
“You need to please rethink this,” said Teresa Miller, a volunteer with the group. “Drug use impacts any person’s ability to get a job far more than an arrest.”
Council members, who have debated the issue three times previously, only responded to one speaker.
“We are not talking about legalizing marijuana,” said Council member Lisa Montelione. “We are talking about decriminalizing a certain amount of marijuana.”
Council member Harry Cohen, who previously voted for the new law, was absent from the chamber at the time of the vote.
The lone nay vote came from Council member Charlie Miranda who did not comment Thursday but in earlier meetings questioned why there is no limit on the number of citations a person can receive.
Close to 1,900 arrests made by Tampa police last year included charges of possession of small amounts of marijuana. Not all those arrest would be eligible for a citation since some were accompanied by other charges.
In other news:
Tampa’s bid to host another Super Bowl will also include the 2021 event, City of Tampa Chief of Staff Dennis Rogero told the Tampa City Council Thursday. The city is already in the running for the 2019 and 2020 Super Bowls alongside Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami and New Orleans.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers in conjunction with Hillsborough County are planing up to $100 million in upgrades to Raymond James Stadium in part to boost Tampa’s chances of landing the event.