The Pinellas County Commission's unanimous decision this month to discuss lowering the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana is a positive step. Commissioners should study the issue carefully and come up with a countywide plan that fines low-level drug offenders without permanently staining their records.
Commissioners took up the issue at the urging of St. Petersburg City Council members who have expressed support for a citywide measure that would replace arrests for minor marijuana possession with civil citations. Earlier this month, council member Steve Kornell proposed a city ordinance that would permit police to fine someone possessing 20 grams or less of marijuana instead of arresting them. The adoption of a civil citation program would end arrests for low-level marijuana possession and allow offenders to avoid a criminal record that could negatively impact their ability to find employment and housing, get loans or prevail in child custody cases.
The movement to increase the use of civil citations and decriminalize small amounts of marijuana is a national trend as state and local governments look for ways to lower incarceration rates and create more just sentences. In Florida, several local governments have passed civil citation programs for marijuana possession, including Miami-Dade and Broward counties and the cities of Hallandale Beach, West Palm Beach and Key West. Other jurisdictions that are considering ordinances include Alachua, Sarasota and Osceola counties. In St. Petersburg, Kornell has said he will move forward with a city ordinance if the county fails to step up. Commissioners shouldn't allow that to happen.
County commissioners expect to hold a workshop on a civil citation ordinance for marijuana possession in early March. Whether it adopts Kornell's proposal, picks up one used by another local government or writes its own, the commission should set reasonable limits for marijuana possession. It also should implement punishments that hold violators accountable and discourage repeat abuse. Many of the cities and counties that have adopted marijuana citation programs fine lawbreakers $100 for the first offense and gradually increase the penalties for subsequent offenses.
Statistics show that robust civil citation programs help reduce arrests and discourage repeat offenses. Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill into law in May that gives law enforcement officers the ability to issue civil citations to juveniles who commit up to three misdemeanors. The law smartly preserves officer discretion and offers juveniles a much-needed second chance. Adults deserve similar consideration. The Legislature should examine ways to broaden the state's civil citation program to include adult offenders who might be better served by rehabilitative efforts outside of jail. Until a statewide remedy is in place, local officials should seize opportunities to cut down on arrests at the local level. Lowering the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana is an excellent place to start.