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St. Petersburg ponders decriminalizing small-time marijuana possession

Steve Kornell wants the city to act if the county doesn’t.
Published Dec. 11, 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — In an effort to reduce the ranks of nonviolent offenders in local jails, City Council members asked Pinellas commissioners Thursday to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

But council members also authorized city attorneys to draft their own proposal in case Pinellas doesn't act and follow the lead of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties in reducing the punishment for the offense from possible jail time to a mere fine.

"If the county says no, I'm still going to say yes," said council member Steve Kornell, a school guidance counselor, who proposed the city ordinance. He asked city attorneys to include a time frame for the county to act before the city proceeds unilaterally.

His proposal would allow police to give a ticket with a fine to someone possessing 20 grams or less of marijuana — about three-fourths of an ounce. It's currently a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

St. Petersburg Police Department attorney Sasha Lohn-McDermott recommended that any civil citation program be a county ordinance that allows police to collect data on offenders and sets deadlines to pay fines.

It's not just the three South Florida counties that have implemented civil citation programs this year. It's also cities such as Miami Beach, Fernandina Beach and Hallandale Beach. Already, some of their police departments have reported trouble collecting fines, Lohn-McDermott said.

"People are realizing, I don't have to pay the fine because the city is not going to do anything," Lohn-McDermott said.

Typically, fines are about $100 for the first offense. Some of the Florida cities have graduated fines for subsequent arrests.

Several council members said they didn't want to send the wrong message to young people about marijuana use. But they said the racial disparities in marijuana arrests and the spiral effect of the arrests — losing a driver's license for one year, for example — outweighed their concerns.

"I don't want to see small possession as something that affects the trajectory of the rest of your life," said council member Darden Rice, who spoke emotionally about the recent death of her nephew from drug-related activity.

It's not clear how much traction the proposed St. Petersburg ordinance would find if Pinellas refuses. Some of the council members said they prefer to act in concert with the county. They even suggested the state should do it first, which, given the conservative makeup of the Legislature, is a nonstarter.

"The more uniform it can be — countywide, statewide — the better," said council Chairman Charlie Gerdes.

The police arrested 308 people this summer on marijuana charges, although many of those arrests had additional charges, Lohn-McDermott said.

The city's request for Pinellas to take action comes in the form of a resolution, which was approved Thursday unanimously by a City Council public safety committee.

County Commissioner Ken Welch said he has had discussions with County Administrator Mark Woodard and Sheriff Bill Gualtieri about a county ordinance.

He said county arrest statistics show a racial disparity in marijuana arrests, including arrests for just possession.

"I don't know if that ends up in an ordinance," Welch said. "But we have to have a level playing field."

Contact Charlie Frago at cfrago@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.

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