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Hillsborough to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana

After hearing from Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister, commissioners gave the idea a unanimous yes.
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister supports decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana. [Times 2019]

TAMPA — It’s an issue that’s divided Hillsborough County for years, but with a unanimous vote Wednesday, commissioners agreed to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana throughout the county and its municipalities.

Now, anyone found in possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana won’t be punished with a misdemeanor charge but instead will be issued a civil citation — more akin to a non-criminal code violation levying a simple fine.

“Now it doesn’t matter where you’re at, or who the law enforcement officer is, it’s the same,” Sheriff Chad Chronister told the Tampa Bay Times. “The enforcement will be the same, the penalty will be the same, and we’ll have a more fair and equitable process throughout the entire county.”

There was little dissent at Wednesday’s public hearing on the ordinance, which was spearheaded by commission chairman Les Miller and the sheriff.

The new ordinance mirrors the rules passed by the the city of Tampa in 2016 that allowed police officers to issue a fine to offenders in lieu of arrest. Sarasota implemented a similar ordinance later that year. But the new plan also includes education and drug treatment components — preventative measures that Chronister said were missing from many of the local ordinances reviewed, including those in Tampa and Sarasota.

Related: Tampa City Council okays civil fines for small amounts of marijuana

The ordinance says that an individual can only receive up to four civil citations before facing a criminal charge for marijuana possession. And once an offender receives a third citation, the ordinance requires them to attend drug screening, education and treatment programs, Chronister said.

Treating addiction before it becomes a problem is the driving force of the new plan, Chronister said.

“The educational component is key and will allow law enforcement to identify an individual who may have an addiction issue and help them with recovery,” Chronister said. “And this ordinance will further serve as a learning opportunity without saddling the individual with an arrest, involvement with the criminal justice system and a criminal record.”

Currently, possession of up to 20 grams of cannabis is a first degree misdemeanor punishable by either a fine of up to $1,000, up to a year imprisonment, or both.

But under the new county ordinance, adults over the age of 18 will be issued a civil citation punishable with a sliding scale of fines up to $500. Offenders will also have the option of completing community service hours in lieu of payment.

The new ordinance will go into effect soon.

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