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St. Pete inches forward on marijuana civil citation



A St. Petersburg City Council committee voted unanimously Thursday to have city attorneys draft an ordinance for the city to start a civil citation program for marijuana.

So far, Pinellas County hasn't taken any action on such a program, which would allow police to give someone possessing 20 grams or less of weed -- about 3/4 of an ounce -- a ticket instead of arresting them.

Officials in St. Pete's police department have voiced concerns about the mechanisms for collecting fines and being tasked with an unfunded mandate. They would prefer it be a countywide ordinance.

On Thursday, SPD Major Paul McWade said arresting people for small amounts of marijuana isn't a priority.

"That's not who we're after. We've got bigger issues," McWade said.

In 2015, only 18 of 147 juveniles arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession were taken into custody only for that charge, McWade said.

A random sample of the 984 adults arrested showed 12 of 67 adults arrested for only small amounts of marijuana were jailed, McWade said.

He argued that police normally arrested people just for marijuana if they refused to provide identificiation or otherwise showed "attitude," or if a particular neighborhood or area was being targeted by vice squad officers. Police would like to retain the ability to arrest people for small amounts of marijuana if they want to get someone off the street who is a known criminal, McWade said.

Council members pushed back, saying that racial and income disparities among those arrested made a municipal ordinance necessary.

"The issue for me is that you shoudn't get an unfair penalty based on your income level. And I think that happens," said council member Steve Kornell, who has led the effort on civil citations.

Assistant City Attorney Mark Winn said legislation making its way through the Legislature didn't address all of the city concerns and that the county hasn't scheduled a workshop on civil citations.

Council member Jim Kennedy said that he would prefer a countywide ordinance, but that the city should proceed in drafting an ordinance to preserve its options.

Once written, the ordinance would return to the council's public services committee.

Any ordinance would allow police to have the option to issue a citation, but would preserve their ability to arrest someone for small amount of pot.

Earlier this month, Tampa's City Council voted 6-0 to discuss what other municipalities have done on the issue during its Feb. 18 meeting. Tampa police and city attorneys have been working on a civil citation ordinance for about eight months and probably will present it to the Tampa council in the next couple of weeks. That ordinance would impose fines starting at $70 for people possessing up to 20 grams of marijuana, or about three-quarters of an ounce. The fines would go up for repeat offenses.

Last year, Miami-Dade, Miami Beach, Fernandina Beach and Hallandale Beach all launched citation programs.

Kofi Hunt, an organizer with St. Pete for Justice, said the city's action is encouraging, but more public input is needed.

The group is concerned that police continue to use misdemeanor marijuana arrests as a "form of coercion," especially in lower-income and minority neighborhoods.

McWade's comments about retaining the right to arrest people for small amounts of marijuana as a way to remove known troublemakers from the street would result in more arbitrary arrests, Hunt said.

"For every one person that is a serious problem, there are 10 people who aren't serious threats who are swept up," Hunt said.

Hunt said Pinellas County can't be counted on to act anytime soon. Late last month, a county meeting organized by Pinellas County Clerk Ken Burke appeared to discourage quick action on citations, he said. 

"There seems to be a lot of drama (with Burke)," Hunt said.

Kornell voiced similar concerns about the meeting.

Reached after Thursday's meeting, Burke said he wanted a more thoughtful, county-wide approach. He delayed moving toward a county-wide ordinance on civil citations because Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is researching a diversion program that accomplishes many of the same goals. Rather than jail, those found with weed would avoid a court hearing and jail and instead perform some community service.

Burke said too many cities are passing their own rules, which will only add confusion later. For instance, how many citations can an offender get before facing jail time? If they get three citations in St. Petersburg, and two more in Tampa, does it count as five? If two 19-year-olds are in public, one drinking a Bud and the other smoking bud, would the one drinking the alcohol get arrested for a misdemeanor and the one smoking weed avoid arrest?

"How do you explain that to the parents of the kid drinking the beer?" Burke said. "It's interesting that this is happenaing so quickly. Our goal is to make an informed decision."

By this summer, Burke said, Pinellas County will reach that decision.


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