Florida: Despite Marijuana Decriminalization Ordinances, Cops Keep Throwing Users in Jail

Although the City of Tampa recently approved an ordinance decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, many local law enforcement agencies say they plan to continue throwing stoners in jail.

A report from WFLA News Chanel 8 in Florida indicates that the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the city of Tampa and its outlying areas, refuses to recognize a new decriminalization ordinance that allows police to simply issue a citation to anyone caught holding less than 20 grams of pot. Instead, the county’s leading law enforcement agency has advised its deputies that marijuana possession remains against state law, and that means forcing offenders to answer to criminal charges.

To make matters worse, Hillsborough County prosecutors say that all of the local law enforcement agencies have their support when it comes to punishing people for weed.

“If the sheriff’s office or the highway patrol or whatever agency, does issue a criminal charge on a marijuana within the city limits of Tampa and they refer it to us, we will treat it as a criminal charge just like we always have,” said Hillsborough State Attorney spokesman Mark Cox. 

At the end of March, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn put his signature on an ordinance that gives the city police department the flexibility to issue tickets to small time pot offenders instead of dragging them to jail. The new law, which went into effect on April 1, was designed to prevent otherwise lawful citizens from being tossed into the criminal justice system, only to be spit out into the streets a social leper destined to encounter the hardships of a common criminal. 

“Incarcerating people, particularly young people, for a very small amount of marijuana absolutely alters their career path for the rest of their life,” Buckhorn said in a recent statement

Unfortunately, while the decriminalization ordinance gives the Tampa Police Department the ability to punish the underground cannabis culture with citations ranging from $75 for first time offenders to $450 for those with three or more offenses, the Hillsborough County Sheriff Office has said that it will go along with the statutes outlined by the state when it comes to handling these cases – a discrepancy that some city officials believe could undermine the intentions behind the ordinance.

“Let’s talk about Tampa stadium. They’re at a football game, they have a small amount of pot, a sheriff’s deputy, is he going to follow the city ordinance or the county ordinance, I’m not sure about that,” city council chair Mike Suarez told WFLA

Suarez is quick to point out that any decision to punish someone for petty pot possession, regardless if it is a county sheriff’s deputy or an officer of the highway patrol is completely up to the officer’s discretion. He says the Tampa ordinance is right in line with the elasticity of the state on this issue.

“State law at this level of a misdemeanor allows you to have a fine as opposed to jail time, that’s allowed under state law,” he said

A number of Florida cities have passed decriminalization ordinances within the past several months, including Miami-Dade, West Palm Beach, and Volusia. This means those areas are likely experiencing similar confusion. Yet, while the conflicting laws are concerning, they do not appear to be as problematic as the authority being given to law enforcement officers, even those at the state level, when it comes to deciding which pot offenders get a ticket and who goes to jail.

Sergeant Steve Gaskins of the Florida Highway Patrol says that while possession of 20 grams of marijuana remains a misdemeanor in Florida, “whether or not a notice to appear or physical arrest occurs is officer discretion.” 

Marijuana advocates argue that giving police the power to make this determination can lead to incarcerations based on nothing more than racial bias.

“While these sorts of incremental reforms are certainly better than blanket criminalization,” explains Tom Angell of the Marijuana Majority, “the fact is that letting officers decide who gets a ticket and who gets handcuffs for the same offense can result in unfair treatment and could perpetuate the racial disparities in the consequences of prohibition that we have long been working to eliminate.



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