At a time when prohibition is still alive and well in the southern portion of the United States, a number of Florida municipalities have moved to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana – a trend that pot proponents hope will eventually lead to statewide reform.
The most recent move to eliminate the criminal penalties for those busted holding small amounts of weed comes from Orlando, where the City Council recently voted 4 to 3 in favor of a new ordinance that will prevent everyone from the locals to the millions of tourists who visit the city every year from being thrown in the slammer for carrying less than 20 grams of marijuana.
Instead of making arrests, the Orlando Police Department will have the authority to issue citations for this offense. First-time offenders would be slapped with a $100 ticket, while a second offense would jack up the fine to $200. However, for those unable to remedy their leafy indiscretions with cash, the courts will provide offenders with an opportunity to repay their debt to society through community service or drug abuse classes. Only those who cross over into the threshold of a habitual offender – getting into trouble three or more times for pot possession – would be required to make a court appearance.
Earlier last month, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer praised the City Council for working towards a common sense policy on marijuana possession. Pointing out the importance of second chances, Dyer said that anything the city could do to prevent pot offenders “from establishing a criminal record helps improve their opportunities in the future.”
"What we're saying is to someone who has made a youthful mistake for the first time and they have no other background of any sort and are not associated with any crimes we're probably going to be able to give them a second chance," Dyer said.
Even Orlando Police Chief John Mina stepped up to tender his support for the ordinance, calling it “the right thing to do.” Mina told the Orlando Sentinel that while the ordinance would make the new pot policy official, his officers have already been exercising discretion by simply confiscating small amounts of marijuana as long as no other crime was being committed.
"We don't want to ruin their life by taking them to jail," Mina said.
Unfortunately, while the new ordinance is set to take effect on October 1, make no mistake about it — there will still be plenty of police officers patrolling the Orlando area fully prepared to arrest people for petty pot possession. That’s because the new ordinance only applies to the City of Orlando and its local police force, it does not change the fact that this offense is still viewed as a criminal act by the State of Florida.
Last month, just after Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn signed a similar ordinance, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office came forward to say that they would not honor the new local decriminalization law, opting instead to follow the laws outlined by the state. To strengthen this statement, Hillsborough County prosecutors backed up the Sheriff’s office by suggesting that they would continue to “treat it as a criminal charge just like we always have.”
Florida law indicates that anyone busted for 20 grams of marijuana or less can be charged with a misdemeanor — punishable with up to a year in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000.
There is no word yet whether the Orange County Sheriff’s Office plans to follow in the footsteps of Hillsborough County by continuing to bust people for simple possession. A message asking for clarification did not generate an immediate response.