I’ve argued before that Hillsborough County should stop criminally charging kids for marijuana possession (in small amounts). Two days ago the Miami-Dade County Commission voted to make possession of marijuana (up to 20 grams) a non-criminal offense. According to the Miami Herald, the ordinance gives the police officer discretion to decide whether to issue the civil citation or arresting them for misdemeanor criminal possession. The civil infraction carries with it a $100.00 fine. The County Court Judge who oversees the misdemeanor criminal division, The Hon. Samuel Slom, said that “[i]t 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.” The discussion of trying a similar plan in the Tampa Bay Area already has some support, but could be a long way off. The patchwork of counties, cities, and municipalities could make for a patchwork of inconsistent laws even if the County Commissions voted for an ordinance like the one passed in Miami.
As criminal defense attorneys we see people charged with a drug crime for simple marijuana possession every day. For many of them it’s their first time facing a criminal charge. Not only do these people face an arrest record, a possible criminal conviction, and the possibility (however remote) of a county jail sentence, they face problems down the road with potential employers, in applying for student loans, in trying to join the military, or in applying for state licensing boards. The courts and police departments churn through countless man-hours and who knows how much tax dollars prosecuting these cases. Letting people get a civil infraction, pay a fine, and get on with their lives, is a much better remedy.
Counties giving police officers the ability to not arrest someone for a crime for simple marijuana possession is a step in the right direction. But more change is needed at the state level. If, instead of a county-by-county approach, our legislators in Tallahassee decided it was time to decriminalize misdemeanor marijuana possession it would go a long way to saving tax dollars and giving prosecutors and police more time to dedicate to serious crimes.