Tampa City Council to Decriminalize Marijuana Possession

Tomorrow Tampa’s City Council is set to vote on an ordinance that will decriminalize possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia.

Here’s a copy of the proposed ordinance being voted on tomorrow: Proposed Tampa Ordinance on Marijuana

The ordinance creates City Code 14-62, and does the following things:

  1. It makes possession of 20 grams or less of marijuana a non-criminal offense. This has always been covered by Section 893.13, Florida Statutes and has been a second-degree misdemeanor.
  2. It makes possession of paraphernalia also a non-criminal offense. Like marijuana possession this has been a second-degree misdemeanor.
  3. Importantly, the new ordinance says that “a person charged with possession of cannabis … may not be charged with possession of paraphernalia … arising out of the same incident. Why is this important? In marijuana possession cases it’s very common for the person to be charged with two crimes – possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia. The drug paraphernalia charge can come from something as stupid as having some shake in a plastic baggie – the baggie is enough to pick up a charge for paraphernalia. The new ordinance eliminates this redundancy.
  4. It sets the following fine schedule for marijuana possession:
    1. First offense = $75.00
    2. Second offense = $150.00
    3. Third offense = $300.00
    4. Fourth or subsequent offense = $450.00.
  5. If a citation isn’t paid within 30 days it gets sent over to county court for enforcement, meaning that it could result in a driver’s license suspension.

Some thoughts:

The new limit doesn’t put a cap on how many times a person can get a civil citation for marijuana possession before it turns into a criminal case. Notice how the top-level fine of $450.00 says that it’s for a “fourth or subsequent offense?” This means, at least I believe it means, that you can be cited for marijuana possession an infinite number of times and it will remain a civil citation offense as long as the weight stays under 20 grams. This isn’t legal advice – don’t try to get caught for marijuana possession an infinite number of times.

By making marijuana possession a civil citation offense this also means that it doesn’t carry with it the mandatory driver’s license suspension that the criminal charge had. This is a big deal, because people were losing their driver’s license over something that had nothing to do with driving a car.

Right now many first-time offenders are given the option of doing the Misdemeanor Intervention (also called MIP) program instead of fighting their criminal case. This program involves short probation term and conditions (like drug classes and drug tests). If the person successfully completes the terms and conditions of the program the state attorney will drop their case and they will be free of a conviction on their record. Importantly however, if the person who goes through MIP doesn’t jump through the hoops to get that record expunged, the public record will always show up that they were charged with a drug crime, even though the case was eventually dropped. This can be a problem for college applications and employers.

Frankly it’s not 100% clear to me whether the new ordinance would make it mandatory that a police officer give a person found with marijuana just a civil citation, or whether the officer would have the discretion to go ahead and arrest and charge that person with a crime. Miami-Dade county adopted a similar ordinance, however that ordinance explicitly says that they operate “at the discretion of a law enforcement officer.” The ordinance being voted on tomorrow doesn’t mention the discretion of law enforcement officers at all. While I read the ordinance to basically say that if a police officer finds a person with 20 grams of pot in Tampa’s city limits they have to issue a civil citation rather than arrest them, that’s my interpretation. I won’t be surprised to see police officers interpret it differently.

Because this is a city ordinance, it’s only effective within the city limits. If you live outside the city limits well, too bad.

This ordinance isn’t retroactive – meaning if you get arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession today before the ordinance goes into effect, you’re SOL.

Do the right thing:

Hopefully the City Council will vote to go forward with the new ordinance. Frankly we’re cycling too many people through the criminal justice system and giving them a criminal record for something that isn’t even a crime in other states.