TAMPA — What is justice for someone caught with a small amount of marijuana: criminal punishment or a second chance?
A second chance, the Tampa City Council said Thursday.
The council voted 6-0 to set a March 3 vote on an ordinance that would decriminalize possession of 20 grams — about three-quarters of an ounce — or less of marijuana.
"Things are changing in this country, and our sense of what's fair and unfair, what's right and wrong, continues to evolve," said council member Harry Cohen, who asked for a discussion of the issue.
Still, he said, "this is not legalization. It is simply a concession that what we are doing is too harsh, and its consequences are too severe, and people's lives are being ruined in the present system."
If approved, a proposed ordinance would establish civil fines for adults starting at $75 for possessing up to 20 grams of pot. The fine would rise to $150 for a second offense, $300 for a third offense and $450 for the fourth offense.
The goal, officials say, is to deal with the offense in a way that doesn't weigh offenders down with a criminal record for life.
"We have incarcerated a significant portion of a generation, particularly of young black men, over low-level drug offenses," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "It really isn't working. . . . If we can divert people as opposed to incarcerate them for minor offenses like smoking weed, I think we would be better served."
In 2015, Tampa police made 1,882 arrests that involved the possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana.
That does not mean all those cases could have been handled with the kind of civil citation the city is discussing. That's because sometimes there were other charges, too, and the ordinance the city has drafted might not have applied had it been in effect.
But it would be a good start, according to about two-dozen pro-marijuana advocates who turned out for Thursday's discussion.
"You guys have an opportunity to stop that flow of people going into a cage," said Kevin O'Neill of the Libertarian Party of Hillsborough County. "We're not here advocating that people should be abusing drugs. We're advocating that our government get out of our lives," which now can be "taken off the rails because of pot."
Also speaking for decriminalization were five people who said they or their loved ones need some form of pot for relief of medical ailments. One was a young mom with Lyme disease. Another was a University of South Florida student with bipolar and panic disorder.
"I take medication, but I also use cannabis," said USF student James Hatcher, 26, who said he's close to completing a bachelor's degree with a 3.9 grade point average.
Marijuana usage rates are the same among blacks and whites, criminal defense attorney Michael Minardi said, but seven times as many blacks as whites are charged with possession in Tampa.
A possession charge can result in a driver's license suspension with no opportunity to get a hardship license, he said, which can make it harder to hold a job. Minardi said he has had young clients lose college scholarships and eligibility to participate in ROTC programs over a couple of grams of marijuana.
"Nonviolent offenders are crowding our system," said Christopher Cano, Central Florida executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "We know that for 80 years cannabis prohibition is rooted in Jim Crow racism that's specifically attacked the African-American and Latino communities in this country."
Speaking against decriminalization was Teresa Miller from the Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance.
Twenty grams, she said, equates to about 36 joints, which to her sounded more like trafficking than mere possession.
Better, she said, would be the Leon County model, which has a pre-arrest diversion program with assessment and substance abuse treatment for first-time marijuana offenders.
"Many adolescents and young adults hear that marijuana is harmless," Miller said. "This is a myth. Research shows that the brain continues to grow until the age of 25. Marijuana is extremely harmful to the developing brain."
Officials in St. Petersburg have discussed a similar de-escalation of the war on this particular drug. Last year, Miami-Dade, Miami Beach, Fernandina Beach and Hallandale Beach all launched citation programs.
To understand the need for a change in Tampa, council chairman Frank Reddick said, consider the case of Jalem Robinson.
Robinson, featured in Saturday's Tampa Bay Times, was a USF student working as an after-school specialist at Potter Elementary in 2014 when a deputy who pulled him over found a small marijuana cigarette in his car.
After he was charged, he lost his job at Potter and learned that he would have to wait three years before he could try for a teaching job in Hillsborough public schools.
Saying everyone, including probably everyone on the council, had some youthful indiscretion in their past, Reddick said giving people a second chance is only fair.
"What kind of future can we have — what kind of city can we have — if we deny people an opportunity just because they made one mistake?" he said.