MIAMI — People caught with small amounts of marijuana could soon get a civil citation instead of a jail term in Florida’s largest county, which may become the first in the state to treat marijuana possession as a non-criminal act.
The Miami-Dade County Commission is considering a proposal to let police issue $100 civil citations for possessing small amounts of marijuana as an alternative to a misdemeanor arrest.
The proposal, approved by a committee last week, will go before the full commission June 30. If it passes, Mayor Carlos Gimenez will have the final say. The ordinance would also cover such low-level offenses as loitering, littering and shopping cart theft.
County Commissioner Sally Heyman said her measure seeks to spare people a criminal record for possessing less than 20 grams of marijuana and would reduce the economic burden on the criminal justice system. Heyman said the county spends about $43 million a year to arrest and process minor marijuana cases and the other low-level offenses. She said issuing citations instead would allow the county to use that money for other projects. She would also support a statewide effort to do the same.
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“We give people who make a mistake a chance and we don’t label them and put them into a system with extreme violent characteristics,” she said.
Heyman said police officers would still have discretion to make arrests under the state misdemeanor possession statute, which calls for a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to a year in jail. They would have to press misdemeanor charges if the possession is connected to crimes such as driving under the influence and domestic violence.
Commissioner Javier Souto, the only committee member to vote against the proposal, called it “decriminalization” and said it is a “slippery slope” that could lead to a future of similar tolerance with drugs like heroin and cocaine.
“This is the easy way out,” he said. “The effort should be made in education that addiction is bad.”
Heyman was adamant the measure will not decriminalize marijuana in the county, where she said possession will continue to be illegal. But she said it could spare many, especially minorities, the lifelong penalties that come with a criminal record.
Paul Armentano, deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the proposal amounts to decriminalization in his view. He added that similar laws have already been enacted in 14 states.
“The majority of the public believes that criminalization of cannabis is a disproportionate punishment to behavior that is at its worst a public health concern and not one that should be a criminal justice concern,” he said.
He said the enforcement of marijuana laws tends to disproportionately fall upon blacks, Latinos and young people. A 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that blacks are almost four times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession.
Armentano said leaving enforcement to police discretion could be a problem because it could vary dramatically between officers, but Miami Beach Police Chief Dan Oates is already preparing guidelines as his city gets ready to adopt a similar measure. Oates’ policy will call for arresting people who smoke marijuana in public, possess it while in a vehicle or have marijuana that appears to be intended for sale.
“The one thing I don’t want is one cop writing a ticket and the other arresting,” he said.