Pot pardons: Tampa Bay law enforcement officials weigh in

The Times asked local leaders about President Joe Biden’s call for state level pardons for marijuana possession and reclassifying the drug.
A marijuana plant close to harvesting is pictured in this file photo. The Tampa Bay Times asked local leaders to weigh in on President Joe Biden's call for governors to issue pardons for people convicted of simple marijuana possession at the state level and his plans to consider reclassifying the drug.
A marijuana plant close to harvesting is pictured in this file photo. The Tampa Bay Times asked local leaders to weigh in on President Joe Biden's call for governors to issue pardons for people convicted of simple marijuana possession at the state level and his plans to consider reclassifying the drug. [ JILL TOYOSHIBA | Kansas City Star ]
Published Oct. 14, 2022|Updated Oct. 14, 2022

When President Joe Biden announced this month that he was pardoning Americans who have been convicted of simple marijuana possession under federal law, advocates called it an important step toward fully decriminalizing the drug that they see as long overdue.

Biden also urged governors to grant similar pardons at the state level, and he announced the federal government would consider reclassifying marijuana, taking it out of the same category as harder drugs such as heroin that draw stiffer legal penalties.

Local officials in Florida and in Tampa Bay have already taken some steps toward decriminalizing marijuana through civil citation and pre-arrest diversion programs. After Biden’s announcement, the Tampa Bay Times reached out to local law enforcement and criminal justice officials to gauge their support for state-level pardons and reclassifying the drug.

The responses from those willing to comment were mixed, but most expressed support for at least looking at reclassifying marijuana, which is currently listed as a Schedule I drug. These drugs are described as having no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.

Clearwater police Chief Dan Slaughter said marijuana should remain a classified drug but not necessarily in Schedule I.

“I think we all can agree that there are some medical values or uses of marijuana, but I think the other aspect of that is that ... at least with marijuana, I believe it is addictive,” he said.

Biden’s reclassification request reflects changing norms around the drug, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said.

“People don’t view it today the way they did even 10, 15 years ago, and it has to be considered,” he said.

In Gualtieri’s county, marijuana possession was one of the most common offenses referred to the Adult Pre-Arrest Diversion Program, which allows certain low-level offenders to avoid criminal charges by completing community service, addiction treatment or counseling.

Gualtieri declined to comment on whether he would support a statewide pardon of simple possession of marijuana offenses, but he said in Florida, very few people are in prison on simple marijuana possession charges.

“You’ve got to beg your way into prison on a simple possession of marijuana charge, especially federal prison,” he said.

Advocates for pardons have noted that freeing incarcerated people isn’t the most wide-reaching benefit of the proposal. None of the estimated 6,500 people affected by the federal pardon, for example, are currently in prison, officials said. Rather, pardons could be granted in a way to allow people to apply to have their records expunged of convictions that could trip them up as they try to find a job, get into college or secure housing and loans.

The Tampa Police Department’s public information office did not respond to questions submitted for police Chief Mary O’Connor. But O’Connor’s boss, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor — who previously served as the city’s police chief — praised the move and said she supports statewide pardons.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

“Law enforcement resources should be guided by community standards, and those resources are much better directed at community priorities like property crime and violent crime,” Castor said in a statement. “It’s ridiculous to classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug.”

St. Petersburg police Chief Anthony Holloway said the government should review how marijuana is scheduled but that more research is needed on how the drug affects young people, who Holloway said are using it more often now than in the past.

Hillsborough Sheriff Chad Chronister helped develop the county’s civil citation program, approved by the County Commission in 2020, for people in possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana, but he declined to weigh in on state-level pardons or reclassification. A statement from a spokesperson for Chronister said the questions posed by the Times were “related to policy and not law enforcement” and should be directed to the governor’s office and the Legislature.

Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco provided a similar response.

Hillsborough State Attorney Susan Lopez issued a statement calling for stronger laws against drug trafficking, particularly those selling drugs to children.

“While President Biden’s announcement falls within his broad pardon powers, we will continue to work with the Florida Legislature and the Governor, so that together we can address the unquestioned connection between crime and illegal drugs,” she said.

Her predecessor Andrew Warren, the twice-elected state attorney whom Gov. Ron DeSantis ousted in August and who is fighting in court to get his job back, supported the county’s civil citation program. In a written statement, Warren did not weigh in on pardons or reclassification but noted the relationship between illicit marijuana sales and violent crime.

“From my perspective as a prosecutor and a father, we must pay more attention to how marijuana’s criminal status affects public safety,” Warren said. “We see a high percentage of murders and shootings over small-dollar marijuana deals — a disturbing and dangerous reality that should factor in any serious conversation about how society moves forward with marijuana.”

Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bruce Bartlett declined to comment.

Allison Miller, a former assistant Pinellas-Pasco public defender who is challenging Bartlett for the state attorney job this year, has said on the campaign trail that if elected she does not plan to prosecute most cases of simple possession of marijuana, though she will review each case individually. Miller said she supports Biden’s pardon and thinks it’s worthwhile to consider how the drug is classified.

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Sara Mollo declined to comment. Hillsborough Public Defender Julianne Holt did not respond to a phone message.

It’s unclear where Gov. Ron DeSantis stands on state pardons. His press office did not respond to three emails seeking answers to questions from the Times.

DeSantis is being urged to take action by officials such as state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and state Sen. Shevrin Jones (D-Miami Gardens), who each sent letters to the governor calling on him to grant pardons. Fried asked DeSantis to place the issue on the state Board of Clemency’s Dec. 14 agenda.

A spokesman for Fried said she supports granting pardons in a way that would allow recipients to seek expungements.

Data has shown that people of color are disproportionately harmed by the nation’s drug laws. A 2020 study by the American Civil Liberties Union, for example, found that despite roughly equal usage rates, Black people are nearly four times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana.

NAACP Hillsborough County Branch President Yvette Lewis said those unequal effects are why Biden’s pardons are so important and why DeSantis should follow suit at the state level.

“This is a small step in the right direction toward correcting wrongs,” she said. “African Americans have been more harshly affected by these laws than any other race.”

Michael Maddux, a Tampa criminal defense attorney, said many of his clients have had minor drug convictions follow them long after they’ve moved on from their legal troubles, creating barriers to jobs and housing.

“It falls into a theme we all need to consider: When have you paid your dues?” Maddux said.