Fine Cannabis

Miami-Dade county commissioners voted yesterday on an ordinance to allow police to treat marijuana possession the same way they do littering, by issuing a civil citation. A $100 fine keeps the offense out of the already overcrowded criminal system.

Sponsor of the ordinance, Commissioner Sally Heyman said, “We have better things to do with our police resources. For goodness’ sakes, we don't have to destroy the lives of so many.”

The vote passed 10-3, making history and changing how Florida's largest local government treats marijuana offenses. This new ordinance gives police officers the option of either charging pot possession as a criminal misdemeanor or as a civil offense. Civil offenses bring a fine but no criminal record. This applies only for possession of 20 grams or less. Over 20g is still a felony in Florida. Any amount of concentrates also remains a felony.

Supporters of this ordinance have pointed to the damage that marijuana arrests cause, jeopardizing eligibility for jobs, military service, student loans, and affordable-housing programs. Advocates point to the fact that marijuana arrests are clogging the court system and keeping police too busy focusing on non-violent crime.

Judge Samuel Slom, who oversees the court branch that handles misdemeanor cases in Miami-Dade had this to say, “It would be stunning to you the amount of taxpayer dollars that is utilized every time someone is charged with a simple offense of possession of marijuana. It takes the officer off their beat. Instead of protecting the community, now they're transporting someone from as far away as south Kendall all the way to the Dade County jail.”

Slom and other backers of the ordinance emphasized that the change does not de-criminalize marijuana possession outright, but gives officers the discretion to not file criminal charges. State and county law includes jail time and fines for possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana. Police director J.D. Patterson made it clear that smoking marijuana in public remains a crime, and that this ordinance applies only to possession.

However, this ordinance gives police throughout Miami-Dade County a non-criminal option for dealing with cannabis possession. Offenders are given a civil citation and the required fine. The ordinance takes effect in 10 days, and applies to all cities located in Miami-Dade County. County Mayor Carlos Gimenez endorsed the legislation Tuesday, calling it “good, common sense.” The police under Gimenez helped draft Commissioner Heyman's ordinance.

Dissenting votes against the new law were commissioners Esteban Bovo, Rebeca Sosa and Javier Souto.

“All we're doing here is making parents’ lives harder,” Bovo said. “I could see a teenager telling a parent: ‘It's just a fine, it's not a big deal.’” Obviously he wasn’t taking into account the destruction caused to a teen’s life from an arrest and the criminal record that follows them.

County administrators have not detailed how police will implement the new law, or when it is appropriate to still arrest someone for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Considering the racial disparities in policing, these future statistics will speak to the effectiveness of the policy.

Police Director Patterson told commissioners at a hearing two weeks ago that he would encourage officers to use the criminal option when the marijuana is clearly intended for sale or if someone was caught in possession while in a car accident. On Tuesday, Patterson said department rules will offer more guidance on how the ordinance should be enforced, including when repeat offenders should be charged criminally.

Miami-Dade's new ordinance is part of a national movement away from criminal prosecution of minor marijuana possession. In South Florida, Broward County and Palm Beach are considering similar changes.

The change in Miami-Dade’s marijuana law was coupled in a larger rewrite of how to treat other minor offenses. With this new ordinance, police also have the option of issuing $100 civil citations for loitering, littering, and even possession of a plastic crate that’s registered as a dairy company’s property. In addition, this ordinance allows for civil citations for possession of drug paraphernalia.

Commissioners also passed an implementing order that would allow people cited for a marijuana civil infraction to perform two days of community service to work off the $100 fine. This is an excellent policy considering that many people cannot afford citations and court costs. While this may not be an end to cannabis prohibition, it is a step in the right direction.