Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Tampa City Council to vote March 3 on de­crim­i­nal­izing small amounts of marijuana

The Tampa City Council will discuss decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana at its meeting Thursday, An ordinance drafted by the city could make possession of 20 grams or less punishable not by arrest, but by fines that start at $75 for a first offense.

The Tampa City Council will discuss decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana at its meeting Thursday, An ordinance drafted by the city could make possession of 20 grams or less punishable not by arrest, but by fines that start at $75 for a first offense.

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.


Proposed fine for adults in possession of up to 20 grams of marijuana


Proposed fine for a second offense

$300, $450

Proposed fines for a third and fourth offense, respectively

Tampa City Council to vote March 3 on de­crim­i­nal­izing small amounts of marijuana 02/18/16 [Last modified: Thursday, February 18, 2016 9:26pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Twins eventually cash in as Rays lose, fall back to .500 (w/video)

    The Heater

    MINNEAPOLIS — The Rays could only battle their way out of trouble for so long Saturday afternoon before succumbing in a 5-2 loss to the Twins.

    MINNEAPOLIS, MN - MAY 27: Brian Dozier #2 of the Minnesota Twins celebrates hitting a two-run home run as Derek Norris #33 of the Tampa Bay Rays looks on during the eighth inning of the game on May 27, 2017 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Rays 5-3. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) 700010973
  2. Rays Tales: The stories behind Corey Dickerson's ascension

    The Heater

    The 25 pounds DH/LF Corey Dickerson lost during the winter through diet and exercise are considered the primary reason for his ascension to one of the American League's most productive hitters, going into the weekend leading in hits, multi-hit games and total bases, and ranked in the top five in average, runs and …

    Tampa Bay Rays designated hitter Corey Dickerson (10) connects for a sac fly, scores Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Steve Pearce (28) in the fourth inning of the game between the Seattle Mariners and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Wednesday, June 15, 2016.
  3. Fans in Florida and beyond won't forget Gregg Allman

    Music & Concerts

    The end can come quickly for those who live fast and live hard, who create worlds with their talent and sometimes come close to throwing them away.

    This Oct. 13, 2011 file photo shows Gregg Allman performs at the Americana Music Association awards show in Nashville, Tenn. On Saturday, May 27, 2017, a publicist said the musician, the singer for The Allman Brothers Band, has died. (AP Photo/Joe Howell, File)
  4. Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Bunning, a former senator, dies at 85


    LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Jim Bunning, a former Hall of Fame pitcher who went on to serve in Congress, has died. He was 85.

    In this June 21, 1964 file photo, Jim Bunning of the Philadelphia Phillies pitches a perfect game against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium in New York.  The Phillies beat the Mets, 6-0.  Bunning retired all 27 batters who faced him in the first game of a doubleheader to become the first pitcher in 42 years with a perfect game in regular season play.   (AP Photo/File)
  5. Trump to decide next week whether to quit Paris climate agreement


    TAORMINA, Italy —President Donald Trump declined to endorse the Paris climate accords on Saturday, saying he would decide in the coming days whether the United States would pull out of the 195-nation agreement.

    President Donald Trump, right, arrives to a G7 session with outreach countries in Taormina, Italy, on Saturday. Climate and trade were sticking points at the two-day summit in Taormina, Sicily. (AP Photo/Salvatore Cavalli)