Tampa City Council okays ordinance creating civil fines for small amounts of cannabis
Tampa’s effort to ease the penalties for carrying small amounts of marijuana cleared a key hurdle Thursday as the City Council gave final approval to an ordinance establishing civil fines for the offense.
Council members voted 5-1, with Charlie Miranda casting the lone dissenting vote and Harry Cohen out of the room at the vote.
Once Mayor Bob Buckhorn signs the ordinance, something that is expected, since he supports the proposal, the new program could go into effect as soon as April.
The ordinance would effectively decriminalize in Tampa the consequences of possessing up to 20 grams — or about three-quarters of an ounce — of marijuana.
Instead of being arrested, offenders could, at an officer’s discretion, get a citation with a fine that would start at $75, rising to $150 for a second offense, $300 for a third and $450 for any offenses after that.
Tampa officials say the goal is to take an offense that society is coming to regard as a less-serious problem and create an alternative to burdening people, especially young black men, with criminal records that make it harder to find jobs or maintain a drivers license.
But it will be vital, officials say, that offenders pay those fines. If they don’t, they could find themselves having to pay additional court costs and would be ineligible for receiving another civil citation in the future. Officers also will use their judgment about whether, based on the circumstances, writing a civil citation is appropriate for a given offender.
“This is not a get-out-of-jail free card,” Police Chief Eric Ward told the council last month.
Unlike at previous meetings, no supporters of the law turned out to speak. Four residents spoke against the idea, several saying the ordinance could give offenders “unlimited chances” to break the law, and that the ordinance does not include any provisions for education, assessment or treatment for offenders.
“I think you all have very noble intentions, and you want to help people avoid an arrest record, which I agree with,” Ellen Snelling said. “But we want to get them on the right track, so they won’t be arrested again. …
“Marijuana is not a harmless drug,” she said. “It is really a dangerous drug and much more potent than back in the ‘70s, 10 times stronger. … It is not your daddy’s pot.”
But council members regarded the new ordinance as a reasonable balance between discouraging the use of an illegal drug and not going overboard with punishment.
“We are not talking about legalizing marijuana,” Lisa Montelione said. “We are talking about decriminalizing certain amounts of marijuana.”
Tampa is the latest local government in Florida to launch a citation program, joining Miami-Dade, Miami Beach, Fernandina Beach and Hallandale Beach. St. Petersburg officials also have discussed decriminalization.
Last year, Tampa police made 1,882 arrests that involved the possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana. Not all of those, however, would have been handled with a civil fine had the program approved Thursday been in place. That’s because some cases involved other criminal charges, too.