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Pinellas Commission will see 2016 Legislative Session through before discussing marijuana civil citations

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Pinellas County Commission’s work session on civil citations for marijuana possession is expected to take place sometime after the 2016 Legislative Session.

That’s according to a letter from Commission Chair Charlie Justice to Pinellas’ Clerk of the Circuit Court, Ken Burke.

“The ultimate policy decision will be made by the County Commission after evaluating any statutory changes made by the Florida Legislature during their early Session,” wrote Justice.

The letter was in response to Burke’s letter to Public Defender Bob Dillinger, which invited him to participate in a task force Burke was assembling to evaluate a potential civil citation program in Pinellas. Burke’s letter was also sent to County Commissioners though it didn’t explicitly invite any of them to sit-in on the task force meeting.

Ultimately, County Commissioner Janet Long ended up going, as the task force convened January 7 — with Dillinger also in attendance. By meeting’s end, most there favored a diversion program for minor marijuana possession — based, in part, on Pinellas County’s juvenile diversion program — rather than a county ordinance that gives police the power to issue civil citations for minor marijuana possession.

However, Burke’s task force efforts may have been a little “premature,” according to Justice.

“While I appreciate your initiative in forming the task force,” wrote Justice, “it may be premature to discuss this topic with any regard to policy prior to the County Commission work session.”

Justice concluded his letter by stating, “when we have a date reserved, we look forward to hearing from you at that time.”

When County Commission convened in mid-December, Commissioner Ken Welch first introduced the idea of holding a work session on civil citations for marijuana possession to the board.

According to Welch — who agrees “wholeheartedly” with Justice’s letter to Burke — he and other commissioners had been hearing a lot on the topic from the public since Miami-Dade County adopted a similar ordinance back in June of 2015.   

Miami-Dade’s ordinance gives police officers the option of either charging pot possession of 20 grams or less as a criminal misdemeanor, or as a civil offense — which brings with it a $100 fine instead of a criminal record, as a misdemeanor would.

Proponents of the ordinance point to the harm that a marijuana arrest may cause an individual, at times disqualifying them from certain jobs, military service, student loans and affordable-housing programs.

Some advocates also say marijuana arrests mire the court system while also preventing police from being as readily available as they could be.

According to Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri — who attended Burke’s January 7 task force meeting — in 2015, there were 7,702 misdemeanor marijuana charges in Pinellas County. Of those offenders, 5,882 were booked into county jail. While the remaining 1,820 received notices to appear in court.

The 2016 Legislative Session is scheduled to conclude on March 11. Pinellas County Commission will meet next on January 12.

Devon Crumpacker is a Tampa Bay based writer and reporter for Extensive Enterprises Media. He primarily covers Pinellas County politics for SaintPetersblog.com, but also makes time to write the occasional bar review for FloridaBarTab.com. He lives in St. Petersburg with his fiance, Sydney. To contact, e-mail devon@floridapolitics.com, or visit his Twitter page @DevonCrumpacker.

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