TAMPA — The Tampa City Council gave preliminary approval Thursday to an ordinance that could allow people caught with small amounts of marijuana to avoid jail and instead pay a fine.
Rather than face arrest and a criminal record, offenders could pay civil fines that would start at $75, then rise to $150 for a second offense, $300 for a third and $450 after that.
The ordinance would effectively decriminalize in Tampa the consequences for the possession of 20 grams — about three-quarters of an ounce — or less of marijuana. It is scheduled for a second and final council vote on March 17. It would then have to be signed by Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who supports the idea.
The civil citation program could go into effect as soon as April.
The council's 6-1 vote followed a lengthy public hearing in which speakers largely talked about two unrelated issues — legalizing marijuana and medical marijuana.
In Tampa, officials say the goal of the new ordinance is to create an alternative to saddling people, especially young black men, with a criminal record that makes it hard to find a job or hold onto a driver's license over what society is coming to see as a lesser offense.
"The real issue here is not just the clogging of our criminal justice system and the amount of resources that governments are spending prosecuting these laws," council member Harry Cohen said. "It's the irreversible effect that a criminal record can have on a person and the fact that these laws are prosecuted in a way across the country where they disproportionately burden minorities and people who do not have money."
That was a goal advocates generally supported.
"You with this ordinance have the opportunity not to make monumental change and change the way things happen, but you can chip away at it, just a little bit, and isn't some progress better than none?" said Christopher Cano, Central Florida executive director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.
The Hillsborough County Anti-Drug Alliance raised a range of concerns about marijuana use, including its effects on developing brains, IQ and memory. But alliance chairwoman Ellen Snelling said the biggest problem with the ordinance is the way it allows offenders to be caught time and time again without facing any consequences beyond a fine.
"You want to have a limit or people are not going to learn the proper behavior," she said.
That was the sticking point for Charlie Miranda, who cast the only vote against the ordinance.
"In my opinion, we're back-dooring legalization of something," he said.
But Police Department attorney Kirby Rainsberger told the council that officers would have the discretion to decide whether the ordinance fit the circumstances of a particular offender. For example, he said, if an officer caught someone with marijuana three times in just a few months, "I would expect it to occur to the officer that this program was not working for that offender, and the officer would still have the option of taking that person the misdemeanor route to jail the old-fashioned way."
Last year, Tampa police made 1,882 arrests that involved the possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana — though some involved other charges, too, so not all of those cases could be handled with a citation.
And Rainsberger said getting a citation would not be the same as a traffic ticket. Officers who find marijuana on someone are going to confiscate the pot, search the offender's car and handcuff the person and put him or her in the back of a police cruiser until they make a decision about what to do.
"It's going to be a significant event for them," he said.
Tampa's ordinance is similar to citation programs launched in the past year in Miami-Dade, Miami Beach, Fernandina Beach and Hallandale Beach. St. Petersburg officials also have discussed decriminalization.
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In unrelated business, the council approved a resolution of support for Do Not Stand Idly By, a national effort to encourage gun manufacturers to make more weapons with technology that can restrict their use to a single person, as well as to take other steps to prevent felons from getting firearms.
After the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., in December, council members discussed signing onto the program, created by Metro IAF, a nonprofit advocacy group created by citizens and religious groups. The name of the group comes from a verse in the Old Testament book of Leviticus: "Do not stand idly by while your neighbor's blood is shed."
But the council was limited to a resolution of support — a symbolic gesture — because city attorneys said a sweeping Florida law that bans local governments from passing their own gun regulations would apply even to rules created as part of the city's purchasing policy.
The resolution, passed unanimously and without discussion, "requests that manufacturers with which the city of Tampa does business with carefully study the flow of handguns in and through Tampa and consider the relationship between handgun supply and violent crime within the city of Tampa." And it said, if the gunmakers are not part of the organization's program, they should sign up.
Contact Richard Danielson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times