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Peer pressure: What will Tampa Bay do now that Miami-Dade made pot possession a civil infraction?

Miami-Dade police have the option of issuing citations for small amounts of marijuana.
Published Jul. 2, 2015

Starting this month, people caught with small amounts of marijuana in Miami-Dade County could walk away with a civil citation and no criminal charge.

The Miami-Dade Commission passed an ordinance Tuesday giving police the option to issue a civil citation, which brings a $100 fine but no criminal record, for possession of 20 grams — about three-fourths of an ounce — or less.

In Tampa Bay, local governments aren't close to taking that step, though several local leaders — including a majority of Pinellas County commissioners — are up for discussing it.

"It is absolutely something we should consider," said Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger. "Misdemeanor possession of marijuana is a minor offense. We don't need that clogging up the judicial system."

The action in Miami-Dade, Florida's largest local government, comes amid a national wave of local jurisdictions decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. Supporters in cities like Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, D.C., cite the burden of marijuana cases on the judicial system and the load they create on police officers who could be tending to other crimes. They point to how a marijuana arrest can jeopardize eligibility for certain jobs, military service, student loans and affordable-housing programs.

To adopt similar measures, Tampa Bay governments must overcome those in law enforcement who oppose easing penalties for drug possession.

While Dillinger's counterpart in Hillsborough, Julianne Holt, supports civil citations, many of those who make the arrests do not.

"We as law enforcement see every single day the consequences of a society that has an addiction problem," Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said. "Why in the world are we going to make it easier for people to recreationally use something else?"

Still, opposition from law enforcement isn't automatic.

A spokesman for Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee said the sheriff is "open minded" about such a policy.

Tampa police Chief Eric Ward said, without elaboration: "In general, we're all for civil citations for that purpose."

St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway said through a spokeswoman that his agency would consider using civil citations if given the option.

The Miami-Dade ordinance does not decriminalize marijuana possession, as officers would still have the option of filing criminal charges. State and county law provides jail time and fines for possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana, and that will not change. Smoking in public would remain a crime.

That approach makes sense to Pinellas County Commissioner Pat Gerard, who pointed to a recent investigation by CBS 4 in Miami that found marijuana arrests accounted for 10 percent of all cases filed in the Miami-Dade criminal court system.

The station also found that about 55 percent of the pot cases involved black defendants, even though about 20 percent of the county's population is black.

"If those same ratios are true in Pinellas, and I'm sure they are close, I think it is a good idea," Gerard said.

She was joined by Commissioners Ken Welch, Charlie Justice and Chairman John Morroni in saying they'd at least consider easing current penalties. Welch noted that Pinellas already uses civil citations for juvenile offenders on their first misdemeanor marijuana possession charge. Hillsborough is considering a similar program. Justice said he's willing to have the county begin research and debate. Morroni said he's leaning toward not supporting it, but said he would support a workshop to poll officials like Gualtieri.

Pinellas Commissioners Karen Seel and Dave Eggers said they would be unlikely supporters. Eggers said the issue is best left to the Legislature.

In Hillsborough, County Commissioner Les Miller said he's torn, but supports a workshop to discuss it.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman has an open mind and is willing to research how ordinances have worked in other places, said his spokesman, Ben Kirby. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn couldn't be reached.

Passing a civil citation ordinance could cause some confusion, at least in Pinellas, where deputies already have the discretion not to charge someone with a small amount of marijuana. If they do opt to charge, deputies are encouraged to issue a notice to appear in court instead of booking someone into the jail, Gualtieri said.

If commissioners passed a countywide ordinance, any of the 24 municipalities could opt out, creating an enforcement nightmare as citizens travel in and out of jurisdictions. Along city and county boundaries, the ordinance could apply to one side of a street but not to the other.

"That's not how laws should be passed and enacted," he said. "It's not fair, and it's not consistent."

Information from the Miami Herald was used in this report. Times staff writer Dan Sullivan contributed. Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes.

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