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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Group protests Hillsborough sheriff's refusal to budge on marijuana civil citations



About 40 people circled the bricks Thursday night in front of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Operations Center in Ybor City. They held signs bearing messages like “Stop criminalizing our children” and wore T-shirts with words reflective of the message: “Say yes to second chances.”

They chanted: “Justice for our children!”

The marchers were members of the Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality - HOPE - a coalition of local religious groups. They were there to protest Sheriff David Gee’s refusal to support civil citations for juveniles caught with small amounts of marijuana.

“We have been trying for over a year to explain our position,” said Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson, a leader of HOPE. “He’s refused to meet with us.”

The issue became a point of contention earlier this month during a meeting the group held to demand that local leaders support the cause. At the meeting, Hillsborough sheriff’s Maj. Willie Parker read a letter from Gee, in which he cited negative biological and social effects caused by marijuana use.

“I oppose this ‘solution’ because those given a civil citation receive no personal sanctions, or services, related to their drug use,” the sheriff wrote. “A fine is paid, perhaps minor community service is completed, and the issue fades away.

“A civil citation puts no accountability on parents or the juvenile for follow-up actions that address the drug use. I also believe that the issuance of a mere civil citation for marijuana use affirms to the juvenile that marijuana use is no big deal.”

HOPE members called that inaccurate.

“The letter just shows that he’s very unaware,” Jackson said. “His values are antiquated and out of date.”

In response, HOPE leaders drafted a letter of their own, which they sent to the sheriff Thursday. In it, they stressed that they are not advocating for legalization of marijuana and highlighted the potential differences between the citation program Tampa recently adopted for adults and one that could include juveniles. Among the differences: under state law, the sheriff could require that juveniles receive drug treatment.

They argue that arresting juveniles for such offenses makes them more likely to reoffend, drop out of school and less likely to shed the stigma of their criminal record.

“Since he’s still refusing, the only thing we can do is come out here,” Jackson said. “We’re going to continue to try to meet with him.”

Last month, the Tampa City Council passed an ordinance that effectively decriminalized possession of up to 20 grams - or about three-quarters of an ounce - of marijuana. But the ordinance didn't apply to juveniles. Under the new ordinance, adults caught with small amounts of pot receive citations with fines ranging from $75 to $450.

The issue has been discussed in St. Petersburg and elsewhere in the state.

[Last modified: Friday, April 22, 2016 4:52pm]


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