Tampa City Council okays civil fines for small amounts of marijuana

Eric Ward, Tampa police chief
Eric Ward, Tampa police chief
Published March 18, 2016

TAMPA — The City Council on Thursday eased the penalties for carrying misdemeanor amounts of marijuana, creating the option of imposing a civil fine instead of arresting offenders.

The vote was 5-1, with Charlie Miranda in dissent and Harry Cohen out of the room.

Once Mayor Bob Buckhorn signs the ordinance, which he supports, the program could go into effect as soon as April.

The ordinance would effectively decriminalize in Tampa the consequences of possessing up to 20 grams — or about three-quarters of an ounce — of marijuana.

Offenders could get a citation with fines starting at $75, then rising to $150 for a second offense, $300 for a third and $450 for any offense after that.

Tampa officials say the goal is to take an offense that society is coming to regard as a less serious problem and creating an alternative to burdening people, especially young black men, with criminal records that make it harder to find jobs or maintain a driver's license.

But it will be vital, officials say, for offenders to pay those fines. If they don't, they could be hit with additional court costs and would be ineligible for receiving another civil citation in the future. Officers also will use their judgment about whether, based on the circumstances, writing a civil citation is appropriate for a given offender.

"This is not a get-out-of-jail-free card," police Chief Eric Ward told the council last month.

Unlike at previous meetings, no one turned out to support the law. Four residents opposed it, saying the ordinance does not include any provisions for education, assessment or treatment.

"Drug use impacts any person's ability to get a job far more than the arrest record," opponent Teresa Miller said. "We're giving the key to our city to pot smokers and drug dealers."

Also, opponents said, it creates "unlimited chances" to break the law.

"I think you all have very noble intentions, and you want to help people avoid an arrest record, which I agree with," said Ellen Snelling, who talked about having a child in substance abuse recovery. "But we want to get them on the right track so they won't be arrested again.

"Marijuana is not a harmless drug," she said. "It is really a dangerous drug and much more potent than back in the '70s — 10 times stronger. … It is not your daddy's pot."

But to most council members, the ordinance strikes the balance between discouraging drug use and not going overboard with punishment.

"We are not talking about legalizing marijuana," Lisa Montelione said. "We are talking about decriminalizing certain amounts of marijuana."

Tampa is the latest government in Florida to launch a citation program, following Miami-Dade, Miami Beach, Fernandina Beach and Hallandale Beach. St. Petersburg officials also have discussed decriminalization.

Last year, Tampa police made 1,882 arrests that involved the possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana. Not all of those, however, would have been handled with a civil fine had the program approved Thursday been in place. That's because some cases involved other criminal charges, too.